Technology

California pushes ahead with kids’ online safety proposals as Washington stalls

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A California state panel advanced a proposal that would hold tech companies responsible for features that can be addictive and harmful, a measure that, if passed, could put California at the forefront of the fight for kids’ online safety as Washington stalls.

All but one member of the California Assembly Judiciary Committee voted to advance the bill, A.B. 2408, with Republican Assemblymember Kevin Kiley, who is running for Congress, abstaining. 

The bill would impose a duty for tech companies not to addict users 17 and younger and would make them liable for damages and civil penalties if they knowingly or negligently addict children to their products or services. 

It’s co-sponsored by Assemblymembers Jordan Cunningham (R) and Buffy Wicks (D). 

The bill is one of two Cunningham and Wicks have put forward to push for kids’ safety regulation online. Earlier this year, they introduced the California Age Appropriate Design Code Bill, which would add further privacy and safety regulations for children online. That bill also advanced out of a committee with broad bipartisan support.  

Though separate, the bills work in tandem, Cunningham told The Hill. 

“The Age appropriate design code bill is more prospective in nature, and seeking to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna make sure that these companies are designing their products that kids access with safety in mind on a going-forward basis,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the proposal that advanced Tuesday, A.B. 2408, provides an incentive for companies to mitigate addictive and harmful features for kids, he said. As written, the bill takes aim at any feature designed, developed or maintained before January 2023. 

“The issue that we’re trying to address is there’s really no incentive for these social media companies to do anything different than what they’ve been doing,” he added. 

Proponents of A.B. 2408, including Common Sense and the Children’s Advocacy Institute, say it would help protect kids from addictive features and the harms that arise from social media addictions — including those they say were highlighted by the internal Facebook documents released by whistleblower Frances Haugen. 

But tech industry groups argue the bill as it stands may be too broad and could push children onto more dangerous platforms. 

“We share your goal of protecting kids online. Yet we worry this bill would expose kids to a more unsafe environment and reduce kids’ ability to communicate, share and connect with each other and the broader world,” Tyler Smith, Chamber of Progress director of state and local policy, testified at Tuesday’s judiciary committee hearing on the proposal.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook, is one of Chamber of Progress’s corporate partners. 

Smith said the bill would drive kids away from “t​​he very services that have invested the most resources in protecting their young users.”

Marvin Deon, vice president of California policy at Common Sense, said that argument is a “cop out.” 

“If their platforms were so safe for kids, we wouldn’t be doing the bill,” Deon said. 

In Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have criticized tech companies over concerns about kids’ safety. Scrutiny ramped up after Haugen released internal company documents in September that in part showed the impact of Meta’s services on young users. 

Company executives have pushed back on reports on the documents, stating their contents were mischaracterized. 

Nonetheless, the leaked documents provided a foundation for lawmakers to rally around. President Biden even mentioned the need for kids’ online safety reform during his first State of the Union address in March, where Haugen was in attendance. 

Despite the widespread scrutiny, though, there has been little progress in Congress on advancing proposals targeting tech companies on the issue. 

“D.C. isn’t taking action on this. There’s bipartisan agreement that something needs to happen. But guess what’s coming out of Washington? Nnothing. California can lead the way here,” Cunningham said during the hearing.

Tags Buffy Wicks California Frances Haugen Jordan Cunningham Kevin Kiley kids' online safety Social media tech companies

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