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California passes bill to increase online safety for children. How will it impact the internet?

California’s Senate unanimously passed a bill that requires apps and sites to consider the protection of children in digital product designs. What will that mean for social media and apps?

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An iPhone displays apps.

An iPhone displays the apps for Facebook and Messenger in New Orleans. California’s Senate unanimously passed a bill that requires apps and sites to consider the protection of children in digital product designs

Jenny Kane, Associated Press

Lawmakers in California voted 33-0 to pass the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which would require apps and sites to install guardrails for users under 18, according to The New York Times. This is the first statute in the nation to require rules to protect young users. The Times reported that the bill would essentially entail apps and sites to “install the digital equivalent of seatbelts and airbags for younger users.”

How will this bill impact media?

Under the bill, companies are required to commit to a data protection impact assessment and report the results to the California Privacy Protection Agency. The National Law Review says the bill also requires default privacy settings to provide a high level of protection, privacy disclosures using clear language suited to a child’s age, an obvious signal to a child when they are being monitored/tracked by a parent or guardian and tools to access privacy rights and report concerns.

Most importantly, The National Law Review reports the bill will ban using a child’s personal information in a way that contributes to the “risk of harm to the physical health, mental health, or well-being of a child.” The Review also says that the bill prohibits profiling children by default, collecting geolocation information without providing obvious signs to the child the information is being collected, or using “dark patterns” to encourage children to provide personal information beyond what is “reasonably expected to provide a service, product, or feature.”

The bill’s main focus is for companies to prioritize the best interest of children over their own commercial interests, per CBS News.

Could this bill become a national standard?

This bill could also lead to a national overhaul of national safety standards. The New York Times reported that California already is a pioneer in children’s online safety and data privacy, and President Joe Biden has pushed for Congress to adopt new privacy protections, per The Wall Street Journal.

“We must hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” Biden said during the State of the Union address earlier this year, per The Wall Street Journal.

The president also said he wanted to ban excessive data collection and targeted advertising on children. This California bill could prompt changes nationwide in online services rather than just catering to California.

“We think the Kids’ Code, as we call it, would make tech safer for children by essentially requiring these companies to better protect them,” bill co-sponsor Jordon Cunningham told the Times.

However, some are opposed to national and state regulations on media. The Times said the legislation is broad and would subject online services to burdensome rules. An opponent to the bill, Eric Goldman, stated that the bill would reduce willingness to use services and that it “degrades the internet’s vibrancy.” Goldman also argues the bill will impose substantial costs and will create a security risk through its authentication process.

According to the Times, the bill now just requires the signature of California Gov. Gavin Newsom and, if signed, the rules will take effect in 2024.

The bill was modeled after a law in the United Kingdom, reported CBS News. The California AADC site said the U.K. bill required:

  • Google to make SafeSearch the default browsing option for minors.
  • YouTube to turn off autoplay for those under 18 and use default break and bedtime reminders.
  • Social media sites such as TikTok and Instagram to disable direct messages between children and adults they don’t follow.
  • The Google Play store to prevent minors from viewing and downloading adult rated apps.

What’s the need for the bill?

Teen activists such as Emily Kim, who spoke to CBS, are speaking out for digital wellness. Kim is advocating for the bill and says it’s needed to “protect young people from the growing mental and physical dangers.”

CBS reports that teens spend an average of 8.5 hours online each day. Other teens have spoken out on the Good for Media site, sharing their stories and their ideas of how to improve online experiences for young people.

Sonia, one of the teens from the site, spoke out against social media algorithms. “Algorithms make it easy for kids to become consumed by social media,” she said in a video. There are many videos on the site of teens sharing what they would say if they could talk with policymakers about social media.

It remains to be seen whether the California bill will be a national influence and change federal regulations for companies.