Senate panel proposes bills to make kids safer online

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Senators took their first step toward increasing protections for children and teens online Wednesday, proposing a pair of bipartisan bills that would expand federal safeguards for their personal information and activities on digital platforms.

The push gained momentum on Capitol Hill last year after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked internal research suggesting that the company’s products sometimes exacerbate the mental health problems of some teenagers. The revelations sparked a series of Senate hearings and bolstered calls for Congress to act.

Driven by the senses. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), The Child Online Safety Act would give parents greater control over their children’s online activity and require platforms to give children the ability to opt out of algorithm recommendations and other potentially harmful features. The bill would also require companies to check whether their products pose risks to children and take steps to address them.

The Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, led by Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), would expand existing protections for the privacy of children by prohibiting companies from collecting user data. 13 to 16 years old without their consent and creation of an “eraser” button allowing children to delete their data from digital services.

The Senate Commerce Committee advanced the two bills during a markup on Wednesday.

“By the end of this year, we need to have protections for children in our country, at a minimum,” Markey told reporters after the session.

Congress hasn’t updated these protections since it passed the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, in 1998, long before popular social networks like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok were created. The law restricts the tracking and targeting of people under the age of 13. For years, lawmakers have pushed to extend these protections to teens and heed concerns about new technologies, including social media.

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The move was welcomed by child safety advocates.

“This is an important step towards creating a safer, less exploitable internet for children and teens,” Josh Golin, executive director of advocacy group Fairplay, said in a statement.

The fate of the legislation, however, is uncertain due to disagreements between the House and Senate.

Earlier this month, House lawmakers advanced a separate proposal that would strengthen data privacy protections for all consumers and create stronger protections for children and teens. But the House and the Senate will have to reconcile their different approaches to get a bill signed.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), who is leading a House privacy bill companion, said Wednesday he could not support the Markey-led child privacy proposal because the committee should focus on data protection for all users, not just children.

“The need for a national law that provides data protection for everyone must be the priority of this committee,” said Wicker, the top Republican on the panel, in his opening remarks.

The move comes amid a wider concern that existing laws have failed to sufficiently protect children from social media addiction and commercial tracking by big tech companies.

During his State of the Union address in March, President Biden called on Congress to “strengthen privacy protections, ban advertising targeted at children [and] Demand that tech companies stop collecting personal data about our children.

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