Push for sweeping child digital privacy laws picks up steam

Maryland and New Mexico unveiled proposals, and more are expected in Minnesota and Nevada.
A general view of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, Md., Friday, Oct. 25, 2013. Completed in 1779, it is the country’s oldest state capitol still in legislative use. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Lawmakers in Maryland and New Mexico have unveiled comprehensive youth digital privacy proposals modeled after a law in the United Kingdom and a first-in-the-nation law passed last year in California.

Similar legislative efforts are also expected in Minnesota and Nevada this year, while measures that borrow elements from the California and UK laws have been introduced in states including New Jersey, New York and Oregon.

The growing momentum for so-called age-appropriate design laws comes amid bipartisan concern about the effects of social media on kids and frustration by state lawmakers over inaction by Congress.

“We’re not going to wait for Washington, we’re not going to wait for other states, we’re going to do it in Maryland,” Del. Jared Solomon (D) said at a virtual news conference Monday to formally announce the children’s data privacy legislation.

Companion measures introduced in the Maryland House and Senate would require that tech companies design any product that is likely to be accessed by children with the needs of those younger users in mind. The bills would also require higher privacy settings by default, prohibit design techniques to get youth to reduce those privacy protections, and place limits on data collection and geolocation tracking.

“The point of this bill is about … what are parental rights, but beyond that what are the rights of children,” Maryland Sen. Ben Kramer (D) said. Kramer said the Senate bill he is sponsoring has a Republican cosponsor.

Also Monday, a bipartisan trio of state senators in New Mexico announced the introduction of virtually identical age-appropriate design code legislation.

“As lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle, we feel an obligation to set a framework that prioritizes kids’ safety by making tech platforms take some very basic steps to protect the privacy, health and wellbeing of New Mexico’s young people,” said state Sens. George Munoz (D), Siah Correa Hemphill (D) and Mark Moores (R) in a joint statement.

The New Mexico lawmakers cited statistics to bolster their case for action: 95% of apps designed for kids contain at least one type of advertising, 75% of social media platforms use artificial intelligence to recommend children’s profiles to strangers, and 60% of school-based apps share the data they collect with third parties.

5Rights Foundation, a London-based children’s privacy group, played a key role in passage of the California law last year and is part of a coalition pushing this year for other states to pass similar legislation. Both the Maryland and New Mexico bills are based on model language from 5Rights.

At the Maryland news conference, 5Rights founder Beeban Kidron, a member of the British House of Lords and architect of the UK law, touted its benefits.

“The code is working in the UK,” Kidron said. “It doesn’t take anything away from parents or children, what it says is if you’re going to engage with our children you have to engage with a more thoughtful and protective manner.”

Kidron gave several examples of design changes that have happened in the UK including Google making “safe search” its default for users under 18, YouTube disabling its Autoplay feature and TikTok shutting off notifications for kids under 15 at 9 p.m. and by 10 p.m. for teens under 17.

The tech industry largely opposes age-appropriate design laws. Social media companies say they are constantly improving safeguards and parental controls.

In December, NetChoice, trade group for tech companies, sued to block the California law. Now, the industry is girding to fight against the spread of similar laws in Maryland and elsewhere. One of the industry’s chief arguments is that sweeping privacy laws force companies to collect more, not less, data in order to verify the age of users.

“This proposal would expand government power over Marylanders’ online speech under the guise of protecting children,” Carl Szabo, NetChoice’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement Monday. “If passed, it will require every Maryland resident to provide our most sensitive personal information to virtually every website we visit.”

Another tech group, Chamber of Progress, said the measures would create more problems than they would solve.

“Ultimately, Maryland’s legislation is going to mean less privacy for users, including children, and it’s going to disincentivize online platforms from building age-appropriate experiences for young people because of the liability those users bring to a platform. That’s a loss for everyone,” Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said in a statement.

The backers of the measures reject those arguments and insist the new laws are needed to force companies to fundamentally change how they engage with younger users. They also cite concerns about a growing mental health crisis among teens and the role of social media on the emotional well-being of young people.

“Girls my age are struggling more than ever,” said Lola Nordlinger, a first-year student at the University of Michigan who grew up in Chevy Chase, Md., and spoke at the Maryland news conference.

On Monday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 57% of girls reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, up more than 20% since 2011.

Several states this year are targeting social media companies specifically with new regulations. States including Maryland have previously passed laws to address issues like online bullying, which can lead to youth suicide.

But Kramer, the sponsor of the Senate bill in Maryland, said a more comprehensive and enforceable approach is needed.

As written, the age-appropriate design bills in Maryland and New Mexico would allow the attorney general to file suit against companies and seek fines of $2,500 per child for each negligent violation and $7,500 for each intentional violation.

“The industry has always played whack-a-mole,” Kramer said. “With this bill, they can try to play whack- a-mole, but we are giving our attorney general in this legislation a great big hammer to smack the hell out of these moles.”