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Tech industry divided over CA law to protect children’s online safety

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California is on the cusp of the first of its kind legislation for children’s online safety.

The California Age-Adequate Design Code Actthat would require online platforms to provide safeguards that mitigate risks to minors took monumental and unhindered steps through the state Assembly and Senate floors last month. The bill, introduced in a bipartisan effort by Assembly members Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) and Jordan Cunningham (R-Templeton), now awaits final signature from Governor Gavin Newsom, whose opinion on the matter remains unclear.

The overarching purpose of the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act is clear: to defend the “best interests of children” and to “prioritize the privacy, safety and well-being of children over commercial interests”. Signing the legislation would put the Golden State at the forefront of sweeping changes to engineering design and the way children in the state — and probably in the country — interact with the Internet. But the magnitude and uncertainty of those changes have also raised some concerns about the bill.

California bill joins a wave of legislative pressure in the states and at the federal level next Leaked Facebook Documents who exposed the extent of the mental health damage to teens specifically on Instagram. Many of these bills have stalled, making California’s success standout.

Many tout it as a long-awaited and life-saving step forward in children’s privacy. Jim Steyer, Founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, wrote in a statement that it “sends an important signal about the need to make children’s online health and safety a higher priority for lawmakers and for our tech companies.”

“People are starting to understand how pervasive this issue is, how we are in this health crisis with the wellbeing of young people,” added Emma Lembke, a 19-year-old advocate of digital wellbeing and the founder of LOG OUT.

The bill is inspired by the Age Appropriate Design Code (or Children’s code) in the UK which is fully rolled out a year ago. Baroness Beeban Kidron, founder of the Foundation 5Rechts, led the UK effort, which has led to similar assessments of children’s privacy in Europe, Canada, Australia and California, according to the Office of the Information Commissioner.

Tech companies have also made a number of global changes since the UK code went into effect (although Kidron notes that the companies have not specifically credited the code for inspiring those changes). YouTube has disabled autoplay for users under 18 and has set “pause” reminders as the default, Google has made SafeSearch the default browser for those under 18, Nintendo only allows users over 16 to set up their own accounts and preferences. couples, and TikTok and Instagram prevented direct messaging between children and unknown adult users, to name a few changes.

The California bill would give the state attorney general the power to make similar demands. And while California’s bill shares many similarities with the UK code, it also shows some significant anomalies. The UK Children’s Code and even previous US federal law in the US – the 1988 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA)—refers to services that are “clearly harmful to the physical or mental health and well-being of children” or “targeted at children”. California law extends this to any “online service, product or feature likely to be used by children,” extending the definition of a child to anyone under the age of 18 from COPPA’s earlier definition as those under 13.

The broadness of the provisions of the bill considerably broadens the possibilities compared to other child privacy legislation. And therein lies the main concern of the critics.

TechNet, an association with members of in the tech industry, argues that a “patchwork of state laws” would create even more confusion and says a federal privacy law is necessary. In a formal letter to the chairman of the California Senate Judiciary Committee, TechNet executive director Dylan Hoffman writes that the bill sets an “over-inclusive standard” that would confuse companies as to whether the bill even applies to them. applies.

The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) reiterated those concerns: “Since children are defined as under 18, that includes almost all services,” said Aliya Bhatia, policy analyst for the Free Expression Project at CDT. “Older teens use news sites, they search for colleges, they doubt their identity.”

Bhatia also pointed to the bill’s provision that privacy information must be communicated to children in an understandable way – “How do you write a privacy policy for a seven-year-old?” – as well as the concerns that data companies may need to raise to verify a user’s data. age, “somewhat counterintuitively.” All this means a heavier lift for smaller technology companies in particular, says Bhatia.

The bill undoubtedly puts a burden on tech companies, but in a different way than some previous legislation, said John Perrino, a policy analyst at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The passing of this legislation really shows a shift from focus on content-specific legislation, such as Section 230 and efforts to update that legislation, to something that really addresses the architecture of potential harm online,” he says. “The design is less political.”

The proactive nature of the bill would oblige companies to scrutinize their policies and the way children use their services and put in place “guardrails,” as Wicks calls them. “We know that [children] become digital natives, and we applaud that. It’s a modern era,” Wicks said in A press conference. “But we also want to make sure our children are safe.”

The bill does give companies the space and time to time their mistakes. First, if the bill is signed, it wouldn’t go into effect until July 1, 2024. After that date, once companies are notified of a violation, they have 90 days to change it and avoid a civil fine. Otherwise, there are consequences: up to $2,500 per negligent violation and up to $7,500 per intentional violation.

The geographic weight of this decision is clear: California is home to many of the companies that would be most affected. Steyer says the bill would make California a leader in the nation and establish the state’s role in a global effort, one that Common Sense Media actively supports.

That’s exactly what proponents have been waiting for, and what opponents like TechNet and the CDT warn of when they ask for improvement. Now all that remains is Newsom’s signature.

“He better sign it,” Steyer says. “If he wants to uphold his legacy and his reputation as a leader.”


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