Silicon Valley is under pressure to reinvent the online experience for kids

Two California lawmakers have introduced legislation to protect children and their privacy online, hoping to bring UK-style social media rules to the US

Members of the State Assembly, Buffy Wicks, a Democrat, and Jordan Cunningham, a Republican, on Wednesday proposed the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, a bill modeled on Britain’s Age-Appropriate Design Code, also known as the Children’s Code. If enacted, web product owners would need to limit the collection of information from California children, better protect them from other users, limit addictive interfaces, and simplify complicated privacy settings and agreements.

The bill would also ban so-called nudging techniques aimed at subtly tricking children into allowing data sharing, as well as the collection of data, including location information, for purposes outside of the product or service the child is using.

Jordan Cunningham, member of the California Congregation.


Photo:

MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS

“I come to this bill not just as a legislator, but as a mother of a five-year-old little girl who is tech-savvy, and we’re trying to curate her experience as best we can, but it’s difficult for parents to do that,” said Mrs. Wicks. “I think it’s time for tech companies to take a more proactive role in making sure there are guard rails in place to protect our children.”

The bill comes as lawmakers and regulators around the world are increasing pressure on social media companies regarding their interactions with users under the age of 18, in response to growing questions about how social media affects their users, and children in particular.

U.S. Reapers Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R., Tenn.) proposed federal law on Wednesday that would hold social media companies responsible for harm they cause children. Its bipartisan Children’s Online Safety Act would also require tech companies to regularly assess how their algorithms, design features and targeted advertising could harm minors.

Technology companies say they take children’s safety and privacy seriously. Some including alphabet inc

Google and meta platforms inc

Messenger, have designed products specifically for under-18s to minimize interaction with adult content and have introduced their own security tools without governmental requests.

Additionally, several social media companies changed their children’s user experience in the year before the UK Government began enforcing the Children’s Code in September 2021, and made some changes globally.

Google has made SafeSearch the default browsing mode for all users under 18, disabled YouTube autoplay by default for the same group, and blocked ad targeting based on age, gender, or interests of users under 18. TikTok, meanwhile, has stopped sending push notifications at 9 p.m. for kids up to 15 and after 10 p.m. for 16- and 17-year-olds. Neither company stated at the time that they made these changes in response to the introduction of the Code.

The politicians and advocacy groups behind the UK’s Children’s Law have held talks on the issue with US lawmakers at state and federal levels, said Beeban Kidron, an MP in the UK House of Lords and architect of the UK regulation.

If passed, the California law will carry particular weight given the number of tech companies based in the state, she said.

California’s existing data protection legislation, which is similar to the UK’s data protection law, also means the state can more easily legislate the code, Baroness Kidron said.

“We’re seeing an extraordinary focus on child protection in the United States, but so far, Congressional bills haven’t made it into the statute books,” she said. “If California, where residents already enjoy greater data protection, is able to provide additional protections for children, it will shake up others.”

Ms Wicks introduced similar legislation last year aimed at better protecting children online, but it didn’t pass. The new bill comes with Republican support and is meant to serve more as a set of directives for California’s privacy regulator, which only began to take shape late last year, she said.

She said she expects the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act to begin committee proceedings in the spring and anticipates “robust discussions with the tech companies.”

“We know tech companies can do this because they’re doing it in other places and it hasn’t negatively impacted their business models,” she said.

write to Katie Deighton at [email protected]

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