Two US senators are pushing to curb the potentially harmful impacts of social media on young people with a new bill targeting tech platforms’ handling of content surrounding issues such as eating disorders, substance abuse and suicide.
The new bipartisan legislation, known as the Kids Online Safety Act, was introduced Wednesday by Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn. It marks the latest example of how Congress is flexing its regulatory power over the tech industry as lawmakers have advanced a slew of bills to rein in the industry.
“Big Tech has brazenly failed children and betrayed its trust, putting profits above safety,” Blumenthal said in a release.
The legislation proposes creating new, explicit responsibilities for tech platforms to protect children from digital harms, including sexual exploitation, the promotion of gambling and alcohol, and “rabbit holes of dangerous material,” according to a fact sheet released by the lawmakers.
Under the bill, tech companies would have to provide settings for families to protect their kids from harmful content including tools to govern children’s online purchases and potential app addiction, and those settings would have to be enabled by default.
It would also force social media companies to publish annual third-party audits outlining the risks of their platforms for minors. And it would compel platforms to make their data available to independent researchers and academics who can study the platforms’ impacts on young people.
“In hearings over the last year, Senator Blumenthal and I have heard countless stories of physical and emotional damage affecting young users, and Big Tech’s unwillingness to change,” Blackburn said in a release. “The Kids Online Safety Act will address those harms by setting necessary safety guiderails for online platforms to follow that will require transparency and give parents more peace of mind.”
The legislative push comes months after a US Surgeon General’s report highlighting how social media risks contributing to a crisis in teen mental health. And it follows claims by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen that the company’s platforms have compromised the safety of young people, and particularly teenage girls.
Congress has held a number of hearings in the wake of Haugen’s claims. Executives from Facebook (FB), its subsidiary Instagram, Snap (SNAP), TikTok and YouTube have all testified about the impact of their platforms on younger users.
On a call with reporters Wednesday, Blackburn and Blumenthal said they planned to forge ahead with or without the tech industry’s support. “Social media platforms have proven they are not going to regulate themselves,” Blackburn said.
The bill’s authors said it is aimed squarely at Big Tech and its use of algorithmically driven recommendations to drive harmful content to teens. Under the proposal, families could gain new tools to opt out of algorithmic content ranking.
But the legislation is open-ended about the types of platforms subject to its provisions, which could raise questions about its breadth.
For example, the bill promises to apply to all entities that provide “a commercial software application or electronic service that connects to the internet and that is used, or is reasonably likely to be used, by a minor” — in this case, someone who is below the age of 17.
The definition does not exempt platforms below a certain number of users or market cap, limitations that commonly have been included in tech regulation bills targeting app stores and online marketplaces. The legislation also explicitly applies to non-profits and so-called “common carriers,” a legal term that encapsulates telecom companies, airlines and other important industries.
Blumenthal told CNN that the bill’s focus will be on the “type of activity, what actions are undertaken by those entities, not so much by how they are characterized or how they characterize themselves.” Blumenthal said he and Blackburn will “continue to contemplate the reach of the proposal … but the point is we need to move forward.”
Blumenthal added: “Our purpose here is not to burn the internet to the ground, not to destroy tech platforms or the internet, or these sites. It is simply to enlist the social media platforms in this joint effort to achieve what should be a common goal: Protecting children against eating disorders, bullying, self harm, suicide – all the bad stuff that right now, all too often, are driven by these algorithms.”
It’s not clear how soon the bill could be considered in committee, but Blumenthal said Wednesday he and Blackburn will “fight for swift passage.”