The Senate Commerce Committee advanced legislation on Wednesday to crack down on Big Tech companies’ interaction with kids and provide parents with tools to make decisions about their children’s digital use.
The committee unanimously advanced the Kids Online Safety Act, a bipartisan proposal from Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn who say it gives parents options to protect against Big Tech abuses that arise from black box algorithms driving content to children.
The Connecticut Democrat and Tennessee Republican led hearings probing the inner workings of major tech platforms featuring testimony from executives at Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok. The bill represents the senators’ remedy to the problems of kids being cyberbullied, addicted to social media, or harming themselves because of their online experiences.
“This measure gives children and parents back control over their online lives,” Mr. Blumenthal said at Wednesday’s meeting. “It provides them with tools, controls, options, safeguards to disable the addictive features, to disarm the algorithms, and protect their information.”
The Kids Online Safety Act would require social media platforms to allow people to opt-out of algorithmic recommendations, would develop a duty for social media platforms to prevent and mitigate harm to minors, and would create new access to companies’ algorithms for academic and nonprofit researchers, according to Mr. Blumenthal.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Minnesota Democrat, emphasized that the commerce committee’s legislation was not a one-size fits all solution and touted her effort to lead an antitrust crackdown against Big Tech. Ms. Klobuchar said she supported the kids’ safety legislation, but she said other policies needed to be enacted too.
“This is just one part of it,” Ms. Klobuchar said at the meeting. “This isn’t going to be able to fix the issues we’re having with the algorithms, and it’s not going to be able to fix the competition issues.”
Ms. Blackburn, who cosponsored the kids’ safety bill, said the need for its changes to the rules governing tech became clear during the COVID-19 pandemic to parents who did not previously realize how tech affects their kids.
“Many of them did not realize what was happening until the pandemic hit and they began to see that the enemy wasn’t always outside the home, many times it was inside the four walls of their home, and it was coming at their child off of a device,” Ms. Blackburn said.
While the bill advanced unanimously out of the commerce committee, future changes appear likely. The committee’s top-ranking Republican, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said more work needed to be done to tighten the bill’s scope, define key terms, and avoid creating inconsistent or conflicting laws in the states.
Mr. Wicker said he looked forward to addressing his concerns before the bill received a vote on the Senate floor.
The commerce committee also advanced the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act authored by Sen. Bill Cassidy, Louisiana Republican, and Sen. Ed Markey, Massachusetts Democrat. Mr. Cassidy lauded the committee’s advancing the bill, which he said would increase the security of kids’ data.
The bill aims to change existing law to prohibit internet companies from collecting information on children ages 13 to 15 without consent and it would create an online “eraser button” that would permit users to scrub information taken from a child, according to Mr. Cassidy.