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Senate bill mandates parental consent for teens to use social media

BY: REBECCA KERN | 04/26/2023 10:43 AM EDT | UPDATED 04/26/2023 01:49 PM EDT

A new bipartisan Senate bill would require teens between the ages of 13 and 17 to get parental consent to access social media accounts and would require platforms to verify the age of all users, the latest sign that momentum is building for legislation aimed at protecting kids’ safety online.

The bill from Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Katie Britt (R-Ala.) largely mirrors several laws enacted in the states that would limit how underage users can access platforms like TikTok and Meta’s Instagram and Facebook.

And senators are expecting to consider additional kids online safety bills this session, as lawmakers look to slap new restraints on how younger users can access and use social media platforms after reports of detrimental impacts on teen users’ mental health.

In the coming weeks, another Senate bill — the Kids Online Safety Act — is expected to be reintroduced by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). That measure requires social media platforms to design their products to ensure the safety of kids.

Complementary measures: Schatz said his bill is complementary with KOSA. “The Kids Online Safety Act, we believe is compatible with this legislation and there’s lots of momentum in the Senate in the house on the Democratic and the Republican side of the aisle to do a suite of things on behalf of kids online safety,” he said during a Wednesday press conference. Schatz also told reporters that he’s spoken with Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) in an effort to win additional committee support.

Schatz also said he’s planning to be a co-sponsor on KOSA. Murphy plans to also sign onto KOSA, a Murphy aide told POLITICO. “We’re focused on our legislation, which is substantively different from Sens. Blumenthal and Blackburn’s approach,” the aide said.

Schatz said his bill differs from KOSA in that it bans kids under age 13 from using social media and prohibits platforms from using algorithmic recommendations for teens aged 13-17. “These algorithms are incredibly powerful and will continue to overpower the brains of these young people. And so I think the ban on algorithmic posting is a really key element of our bill,” he said in an interview after the press conference.

Blumenthal not on board: However, Blumenthal raised concerns that tech companies could capture more kids data in the age verification process under Schatz’s bill. He said doesn’t plan to support it as of now.

“I have very severe concerns about an age verification system that would give Big Tech in fact a goldmine of data to exploit or potentially abuse,” he said in an interview. “I want to make big tech accountable and not make parents prison wardens.”

Blumenthal said they have at least 15 bipartisan cosponsors on the KOSA measure so far, and plan to get more support before reintroduction. KOSA advanced unanimously out of the Senate Commerce Committee last year, which may give it a head start once it’s reintroduced this Congress — particularly since it already won Cantwell’s support. Additionally, President Joe Biden called in his State of the Union address for Congress to act to hold tech accountable for “the experiment they are running on our children for profit.”

States took the lead: Schatz’ bill follows similar legislation in nearly a dozen red and blue states seeking to require parental consent or disclosure, including GOP-led bills in Arkansas and Utah that were signed into law in recent weeks. Schatz’s bill goes further than the state laws by banning kids under age 13 from social media and prohibiting algorithmic recommendations to teens age 13-17.

California also passed its age appropriate design code last year, which is similar to the federal KOSA effort, and several states have introduced their own AADC bills this year too.

Enforcement by FTC, state AGs: The bill gives the Federal Trade Commission first time fining authority if a company violates provisions of the bill under the FTC’s unfair or deceptive practices rules. Companies can face fines up to $10,000 per day per user, Schatz said after the presser. It also empowers state attorneys general to bring civil lawsuits against companies in violation of the bill.

“This is a robust authority that we want to give to the FTC because we want to obviate the possibility that companies just make a judgment that this is a cost to doing business,” he said.

Tech calls it unconstitutional: Tech lobbying groups like NetChoice have sent letters opposing Arkansas and Utah’s parental consent bills, saying they violate teens’ First Amendment rights. NetChoice also filed a lawsuit against California’s AADC law.

Carl Szabo, NetChoice’s vice president and general counsel, said Schatz’s bill “is taking the failed approach in Arkansas and the failed approach in California and trying to do it at the federal level. This is all the same idea, just in different fashions.”

“At the end of the day, as much as any of us want to help teens, help parents, there is a clear prohibition from the First Amendment coupled with a clear violation of conservative principles of limited government and free market,” he said in an interview. “So it’s surprising to see Republicans having the government start to get in the place of parents.”

Bill lets tech off the hook: Kids safety group Common Sense Media say the Schatz bill puts too much responsibility on parents and not the platforms themselves.

Common Sense Media CEO James Steyer said the group backs bills like KOSA versus “legislation that places additional burdens on parents or adds to the tensions that often already exist between parents and kids at home around technology and media use.”

Similarly, Nicole Gill, executive director of tech watchdog group Accountable Tech, said the responsibility needs to go to tech. “We need to put the onus on Big Tech to finally prioritize young people’s privacy, mental health, and wellbeing by design over their own corporate products, or face real accountability,” she said in a statement.

Brendan Bordelon contributed to this report.

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