By Grace Gedye. CalMatters.
When does a child become an adult? It's an elusive question that developmental psychologists, philosophers, and parents might answer differently.
But lawmakers can't work with ambiguity. So, in the late 1990s, Congress decided that, at least when it comes to surfing the Web, children are those under the age of 13.
Last week, California lawmakers said: No. Children are people under the age of 18. Children are people under 18. And if Gov. Gavin Newsom signs a children's Internet privacy bill, which they just passed, California's under-18s will get a lot more online privacy rights.
What young people encounter on apps and the web has become a source of growing concern for parents, fueled by alarming headlines and new research. So, a bipartisan group of lawmakers pushed for the California Age Appropriate Design Code Act, also known as AB 2273.
The bill could become a model for other states, or provide a roadmap for Congress, which is considering its own privacy bill.
"Social media is something that wasn't designed with kids in mind," said Emily "Emi" Kim, an 18-year-old who lives in Porter Ranch, near Los Angeles.
Kim splits her time as legislative director of Log Off Movement, a youth-led organization that advocated for the bill, while attending college classes and working at Chipotle.
This is what the bill would do
If signed into law, California companies that provide online services or products that are likely to be accessed by children under the age of 18 would have to provide enhanced privacy protections by default beginning in July 2024.
Specifically, the bill:
- It asks companies to assess the potential harm in the way they use children's data in new services or features, and create a plan to reduce risk before the feature is implemented.
- It prohibits companies from using children's information in a way that the company knows - or has reason to know - is "materially detrimental" to their well-being, such as pushing children to look at pictures of extremely thin supermodels after searching for information on how to lose weight.
- It generally prohibits companies from collecting, selling, sharing or retaining any personal information about a child unless it is necessary to provide the service that the child is directly using.
- Prohibits companies from collecting, selling or sharing precise location data for children by default, unless strictly necessary for the function, and only for a limited time.
- Requires the product to be obvious to children when they are being tracked, if the company allows parents or adults to track children online.
If some of those requirements sound vague, the bill also creates a new task force, composed of experts in children's data privacy, computer science, mental health and more, to make recommendations to the Legislature.
The bill would be enforced by the state attorney general, who could file civil lawsuits that could result in fines of up to $7,500 per child for willful violations.
Karla Garcia, the mother of an 11-year-old boy in the Palms neighborhood of West Los Angeles, supports the bill because she hopes it will rein in the algorithms that suck her son, Alessandro Greco, into YouTube. "He knows it's an addiction," she said of her son's America's Got Talent binges, which prevent him from doing his homework. "Honestly, I have this fight every night with my son."
"I want him to have his independence, but this is stronger than he is," Garcia said.
How the Internet privacy law for children has worked in other places
The idea was borrowed from a UK law, which came into effect in September 2021. Since the law was passed, technology companies have made changes, including the following:
- YouTube disabled autoplay, the feature that plays videos continuously, for users under 18 years of age.
- Google made SafeSearch the default for users under 18 and stopped tracking children's location data.
- TikTok stopped sending push notifications to teens late at night. Teens aged 13 to 15 do not receive push notifications after 9 p.m., and 16 and 17 year olds do not receive push notifications after 10 p.m. The company also disabled direct messages for users under the age of 16.
Who gets to be a child?
The bill faced pushback from lobbying organizations representing technology companies and other businesses, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the Entertainment Software Association and TechNet.
TechNet counts Amazon, Google, Meta - formerly known as Facebook - and Uber among its members. The organizations argued that the bill would apply to more sites than necessary.
"It's another example of why we need a federal privacy law that includes universal standards to protect children online rather than a patchwork of state laws that creates confusion and compliance complications for businesses," noted Dylan Hoffman, executive director of TechNet which oversees California and the Southwest.
One of the main changes the groups pushed for was to reduce the bill's definition of a child from 18 to 13, as in federal law. They then advocated for 16, which is a threshold in a California privacy law, Hoffman said. But the business groups were unsuccessful in that push.
"Any parent, to be honest, any grandparent, any sister, brother, would tell you that a 13-year-old is not an adult," said Baroness Beeban Kidron, a member of the U.K. House of Lords who spearheaded the effort to pass the U.K. law and founded 5Rights Foundation, which sponsored the California bill. "You can't ask a 13-year-old to make adult decisions," Kidron said.
What happens next?
First, Newsom will decide whether he wants to sign the bill into law or veto it. If he signs it, most of the measure's requirements would not go into effect until 2024.
But companies would have to start identifying and mitigating risks to children immediately, said Nichole Rocha, director of U.S. affairs for the 5Rights Foundation. In other words, if the bill becomes law, companies could begin implementing changes well before 2024.
What if the companies don't want to comply? Would the threat of a potential lawsuit by the California attorney general be enough to prompt them to act?
"I'll be following that very closely," said Buffy Wicks, a Democratic state assemblywoman from Oakland and one of the bill's authors. The legislature could pass another bill if there is a need to refine how the law is enforced, she stressed. "We can sit here and make policy all day long, but if it's not implemented, it's not enforced, what's the point?"
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