A new federal bill unveiled on Wednesday sets a national minimum age for social media use and requires tech companies to get parental consent before creating teen accounts, reflecting a growing trend at all levels of government to restrict the use of Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and others. platforms interact with young users.
The bill, proposed by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators, aims to address what politicians, mental health advocates and critics of technology platforms are calling the mental health crisis fueled by social media.
Under the bill, known as the Child Social Media Protection Act, social media platforms will be prohibited from allowing children under the age of 13 to create accounts or interact with other users, although children will still be allowed to view content without logging into an account. , in accordance with draft text legislation.
Tech platforms subject to the law will also need to obtain the consent of a parent or guardian before creating new accounts for users under the age of 18. Companies will be prohibited from using teenagers’ personal information to target them with content or advertising, although they may still provide limited, targeted recommendations to teenagers based on other contextual cues.
This is the latest move by lawmakers to develop age limits for tech platforms after similar bills became law this year in states like Arkansas and Utah. But the law could also spark wider debate and possible future litigation, calling into question the privacy and constitutional rights of young Americans.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Democratic Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii, author of the federal bill, said Congress urgently needs to protect children from the harm caused by social media.
“Social media companies have stumbled upon a stubborn, disruptive fact,” Schatz said. “The way to get kids to linger on the platforms and maximize profits is to frustrate them—to cause resentment, excitement, fear, vulnerability, helplessness, anxiety. [and] depressed.”
Most of the major social networks already ban children under the age of 13 from using their platforms as a result of the federal Children’s Privacy Act known as COPPA. But enforcing the restriction was a problem.
Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, the leading Republican funder, said existing ways to ensure kids aren’t underage online are too easy to circumvent. The two senators were joined by Connecticut Democratic Senator Chris Murphy and Alabama Republican Senator Kathy Britt.
The bill, which could be one of the most far-reaching changes in the tech landscape, aims to create a government age verification program that can certify users’ age or parental status based on an identity they upload to a government system or a third-party verifier.
Under the bill, this program will be a pilot project administered by the Department of Commerce, and participation and use of a federally administered age verifier will be voluntary. But it would mean a potentially significant expansion of the government’s role in regulating websites that require age verification.
Tech companies can still develop their own age verification technologies or hire third-party companies for verification, lawmakers said.
Violations of the proposed law could mean millions of dollars in FTC fines for social media companies. But this is not the case for a long list of tech products, including email services, teleconferencing providers, payment companies, video game stores, digital newsletter platforms, cloud storage services, travel websites and online directories like Wikipedia, or user review sites. , such as Yelp. .
The bill, passed on Wednesday, can be seen as competing with another separate bill being drafted by Connecticut Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn. The legislation, known as the Children’s Online Safety Act, will be reintroduced in the Senate “very soon,” Blumenthal said, raising concerns about the Schatz-Cotton bill.
“I welcome additional ideas,” Blumenthal said. But he added: “I have some concerns about an age identification system that will create a national database of personal information about children in the hands of big technology, which could lead to misuse or exploitation. I have other concerns about a bill that places responsibility on parents and not on Big Tech, as our legislation does.”
In response to the “Design It for Us” bill, a youth coalition advocating social media change in the face of mental health issues said lawmakers should focus on shaping the basic product design of social media platforms rather than imposing post-facto restrictions on .
“We believe that any legislation addressing the harms of social media should hold companies accountable for making their platforms safer, rather than prohibiting children and teens from using platforms altogether,” said Zamaan Qureshi, Co-Chair groups.
Opponents of such proposals, set out on Wednesday, also said the restrictions on teenagers threaten their constitutional rights. For example, the tech industry and digital rights advocates have argued that Utah’s legislation requiring age verification and parental consent would violate the First Amendment rights of young Americans to access information and limit the speech rights of all Americans.
“Requiring all users in Utah to link their accounts to their age and ultimately their identity will result in fewer people expressing opinions or searching for information online,” Electronic Frontier wrote last month. Foundation, a digital rights organization. “In addition, tens of millions of people in the United States do not have a government-issued ID. Those in Utah are likely to be age restricted offline.”
The Computer and Communications Industry Association, which represents companies including Google and Facebook parent Meta, said age verification rules would require consumers to disclose even more of their personal information to tech companies or third parties.
“This data collection poses additional privacy and security risks for everyone,” the CCIA wrote in a letter to the Governor of Utah. Spencer Cox last month. “This mandatory data collection will include the collection of very sensitive personal information about children, including the collection and storage of their geolocation to ensure they do not reside out of state while verifying that they are of age to use these services.” .
On Wednesday, however, Cotton dismissed privacy concerns, calling it not a “serious argument” when government agencies and online gambling sites use identity or age verification. He also said the bill would effectively reduce the amount of personal information technology platforms can effectively collect by blocking children under 13 from accessing their sites.
“If a child is, say, too small to sign a contract, or too small to open a bank account in the real world, they are too small to sign terms of service agreements and use social media in the digital world,” Cotton said. reporters.
Schatz added that the bill was not posted on social media for feedback, but predicted that the industry would soon deploy an “army of lobbyists” to fight it.
“The tech industry will pass this bill like any other child online safety bill, with everything it has,” Schatz said. “But the burden of proof is on those who want to defend the status quo, because the status quo makes an entire generation of users mentally ill.”