California Passes a Bill to Protect Kids Online

The state legislature of California just passed a bill that, if signed into law, would mandate additional safety precautions for minors using online platforms.

The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which would oblige online platforms to proactively evaluate how their product design could represent a hazard to children (including through algorithms and targeted marketing), was unanimously approved by the state Senate on Monday. An previous version of the plan was adopted by the California State Assembly, and all that is left is for Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom to sign it into law. The bill wouldn’t take effect until 2024 even if it was signed.

California Passes a Bill to Protect Kids Online
California Passes a Bill to Protect Kids Online

By defaulting to the strictest privacy settings and alerting minors with a “obvious signal” when their location is being watched, the law would mandate new protections for users under the age of eighteen on internet services (such as by a parent or guardian).

It would also forbid the use of “dark patterns,” or design tactics used to lead users toward a specific decision, to coerce minors into disclosing personal information that is unnecessary to deliver the service.

Due in part to the complexity of implementing multiple standards based on location, California’s legislation could become the basis of additional state or federal design guidelines, or it could even motivate platforms to proactively adjust their services across the country.

The legislation is reminiscent of a new design code in the United Kingdom that established minimum standards for protecting children online. Many members of Congress, including Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass. ), have praised the British design code and advocated for its ideas to be implemented in the United States.

After former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified before Congress late last year about internal documents she disclosed showing the business was aware of how its products might impair children’s mental health, the concept of requiring design safeguards became extremely hot in Congress. Facebook has claimed it takes user safety seriously, and that the documents published by Haugen are misleading without additional background.

Common Sense Media and other organizations who want more controls to protect children online applauded the Senate’s action.

CEO Jim Steyer hailed the move as “a tremendous step toward protecting California kids online” in a press release.

The organization Accountable Tech, which has advocated for federal antitrust laws targeting Big Tech platforms, likewise welcomed the news with enthusiasm.

Co-founder and Executive Director Nicole Gill remarked, “If signed into law, this historic legislation would constitute a seismic change in the fight for online privacy.”

However, some people have expressed worries about the measure.

The bill’s provisions that platforms aim to assess users’ ages in order to serve them suitable content are well intentioned, but could be unduly intrusive, according to an op-ed written by Santa Clara University School of Law professor Eric Goldman earlier this month.

TechNet is an industry group backed by major tech giants including Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta, and it has voiced its opposition to the legislation. CNBC’s parent business, NBCUniversal, is owned by Comcast, which is also a member of TechNet.

“While this measure has improved, we remain concerned about its unforeseen repercussions in California and across the country,” said Dylan Hoffman, the group’s California and Southwest executive director.

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