California passes bill to make internet safer for kids

A girl looks at her computer screen

Alain Jocard | AFP | Getty Images

The California state legislature this week passed a bill that, if passed, would require online platforms to take additional steps to ensure their services are safe for young users.

The state senate unanimously approved California Age Appropriate Design Code Act Monday, a bill that would require online platforms to proactively consider how the design of their products might pose a danger to minors, including through algorithms and targeted advertising. The California state assembly previously approved a version of the bill, which still needs to be signed by Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom to become state law. If signed, the bill will not come into force until 2024.

The bill would require online services to install additional protections for users under 18, including defaulting to the highest possible privacy settings in most cases and providing “a clear signal” to the minor when his location is monitored (for example by a parent or Guardian).

It would also ban the use of so-called dark patterns — essentially design tricks designed to direct users to a specific choice — that would encourage minors to divulge personal information that isn’t necessary to provide the service.

The California law could become the basis for other state or federal design codes, or could even encourage platforms to proactively change their services across the country, in part due to the difficulty of applying different standards based on the location.

The bill echoes a recent design code in Britain that sought to create baselines to protect children on the internet. Federal lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have praised the British design code and suggested its principles should be extended to the United States

The idea of ​​requiring design safeguards became a particularly hot topic in Congress late last year when former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified on internal documents she exposed that showed the company was aware of how its products could harm the mental health of children. Facebook said it was working hard to protect user safety and that the documents Haugen revealed lacked critical context.

Groups advocating for stronger internet safeguards for children, such as Common Sense Media, welcomed the Senate’s passage of the law.

In a statement, CEO Jim Steyer called it “a monumental step toward protecting California’s children online.”

Accountable Tech, a group that has backed federal antitrust legislation targeting Big Tech platforms, also welcomed the bill’s progress.

“If enacted, this landmark legislation would represent a sea change in the fight for online privacy,” co-founder and executive director Nicole Gill said in a statement.

But others have expressed concerns about the bill.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, warned in a editorial earlier this month that the bill’s requirements that platforms seek to assess users’ age to serve them appropriate content, while well-intentioned, could be too intrusive and undermine efforts to offer more confidentiality to these users.

TechNet, an industry group funded by technology companies including Amazon, Apple, Google and Meta, raised concerns about the bill. (Comcastthe owner of CNBC parent company NBCUniversal, is also a TechNet member).

“While this bill has improved, we remain concerned about its unintended consequences in California and across the country,” said the group’s California executive director, Dylan Hoffman. Axios.

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