Sens. Blumenthal, Blackburn propose to overhaul digital rules to protect kids from social media

Two senators are proposing to write legislation to protect children online after a series of hearings with tech executives spotlighted social media’s alleged danger to children regarding substance abuse, suicide and eating disorders. 

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, and Marsha Blackburn, Tennessee Republican, unveiled Wednesday the Kids Online Safety Act, which aims to help by requiring platforms to provide choices about what the kids see and by obligating the platforms to mitigate risks to children. 

“Big Tech has brazenly failed children and betrayed its trust, putting profits above safety,” Mr. Blumenthal said in a statement. “Seared in my memory — and motivating my passion — are countless harrowing stories from Connecticut and across the country about heartbreaking loss, destructive emotional rabbit holes, and addictive dark places rampant on social media.” 

Mr. Blumenthal said the bill introduced Wednesday would hold tech companies accountable for “deeply dangerous” algorithms that he said are driven by eyeballs and dollars. 

The bill would require social media platforms to give children the ability to opt-out of algorithmic recommendations without just logging out.

The proposal would establish a duty of care requiring tech companies to act to prevent harm to minors, including by mitigating children’s usage that indicate “addiction-like behaviors.”

And the bill would make the companies provide a public report of their platforms’ potential systemic risk to minors. 

Mrs. Blackburn said the legislation is especially necessary now because of how COVID-related shutdowns pushed people to rely on digital tools. 

Mr. Blumenthal and Mrs. Blackburn held a series of hearings with tech executives last year, including representatives from Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok.

After hearing the testimony of former Facebook employee Frances Haugen, who accused Facebook of harming children, Mr. Blumenthal compared Big Tech to the tobacco industry.

Other efforts to crack down on tech companies legislatively are a step ahead of Mr. Blumenthal and Mrs. Blackburn’s proposal. The Senate Judiciary Committee has advanced multiple antitrust bills aimed at large tech companies this year, and those bills await final consideration from the full Senate.  

Mr. Blumenthal and Mrs. Blackburn’s bill does not squarely address tech censorship concerns raised by Republican lawmakers focused on legal liability protections afforded to online platforms through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

According to Mrs. Blackburn’s office, overhauling Section 230 is a separate issue from her legislation aimed at helping children. 

Some tech platforms already provide options resembling the requirements in the Kids Online Safety Act. For example, Twitter allows people to toggle between a “latest” feature displaying posts in chronological order or in a “home” experience where posts are displayed in a recommended fashion based upon a person’s usage and preferences. 

The new bill intends to make all platforms give kids and their parents options for determining their own recommendations or for opting out of recommendations altogether without just leaving the platform or logging out. 

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