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Push renewed for online child safety bill despite setbacks

Congress has held dozens of hearings on data privacy in the past five years without major legislation moving forward

Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell says the Senate is on track to pass a package of child online safety measures this year.
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell says the Senate is on track to pass a package of child online safety measures this year. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

For more than two years, lawmakers have been promising to pass legislation to require tech companies to safeguard kids from harassment, sexual abuse and other harms they face on social media platforms. Now, a key member of Congress says she sees a path to doing so. 

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, whose jurisdiction includes online safety issues, said the Senate is on track to pass a package of child online safety measures this year and will attempt to pass federal data privacy legislation early next year.

“We would like to get some kids privacy bills done, out the door this year, and then turn to the larger privacy bill,” Cantwell said in an interview. 

Cantwell said she has had discussions with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer. “We have a good idea of what we can get done, but we have to make time for it in the middle of all this ‘can we keep the government open’” debate as Congress looks to pass another continuing resolution, she said. “But we would hope that we could get it done.”

Schumer, D-N.Y., also addressed federal data privacy legislation in brief remarks to reporters after holding the latest forums on artificial intelligence technologies last week. The majority leader acknowledged that passing a federal data privacy law was a prerequisite to legislating on AI safety. 

“There was pretty much consensus that we need some kind of privacy law,” Schumer said. “And we are endeavoring to get that done, but it hasn’t been easy. … There are lots of disagreements, but it’s important to try and get that done.” 

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Committee, told CQ Roll Call recently that “comprehensive privacy legislation would establish the foundation necessary to give Americans control over how their information is collected, used and shared, whether that’s for AI or for something else.”

Congress has held dozens of hearings on data privacy in the past five years, and lawmakers in both chambers have proposed several bills.

Last year, the House made progress toward a bipartisan bill when House Energy and Commerce approved bipartisan legislation backed by Rodgers and New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr., the committee’s top Democrat, that would have created a federal data privacy standard. But the measure didn’t get a floor vote because then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposed the bill on the grounds that it would provide fewer protections than California’s data privacy law. The Senate didn’t take up a companion measure. 

The latest push to pass legislation addressing kids’ online safety came after Arturo Bejar, a former Facebook engineer turned whistleblower — the second to appear before Congress in two years — said this month that his warnings to parent company Meta Platforms Inc. and its Instagram business about dangers faced by children went unheeded.

Bejar testified that he had witnessed his 14-year-old daughter and her friends, who were using Instagram, experiencing “unwanted sexual advances, misogyny and harassment,” noting that the company had dismantled tools developed by engineers to help teens using the platform to deal with such problems. 

Liza Crenshaw, a spokeswoman for Meta, said in an email that the company has introduced “over 30 tools to support teens and their families in having safe, positive experiences online.” 

Other bills

The Senate Judiciary and Commerce committees have approved several measures to address kids’ online safety, including one that would eliminate liability protections for online platforms for content that relates to child sexual exploitation and child pornography. The measures have yet to receive floor votes. 

In July the Commerce Committee approved a measure, sponsored by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that would require online platforms and social media apps to exercise a duty of care and take steps to mitigate harm for minors using their platforms. The requirement would apply to children below the age of 13.

“I support any approach that enables passing the Kids Online Safety Act,” Blumenthal said in an email referring to the legislation. “With nearly half the Senate cosponsoring it, the bill deserves floor action by the end of the year. Parents and kids are rightly demanding action to prevent Big Tech’s continuing harms.”

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., noted that the first version of the legislation was proposed in 2012.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved legislation sponsored by Sen. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., and co-sponsored by Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would prohibit online platforms from disseminating children’s personal information without obtaining a verifiable parental consent to do so, effectively ending targeted ads aimed at kids and teens. The bill would raise the age of children protected to 17, from 13 under current law.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also has advanced several measures, including one backed by Chair Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., that would enable child pornography victims to sue an internet company that made the material available. The bill would also establish a board within the Federal Trade Commission to resolve complaints if an internet platform fails to take down such material. 

Another measure — sponsored by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee, and backed by Blumenthal — would eliminate Section 230 liability protections for online platforms with respect to third-party content showing child sexual abuse. 

A third measure, sponsored by Blackburn, would require social media and online platforms to report any incidents of sexual exploitation of children, among other protective and liability provisions. Platforms that fail to act would be liable and subject to fines, which would be significantly increased under the bill’s provisions. 

Separately, President Joe Biden signed into law in December a measure that aims to curb cyber and sexual threats to children online. It reauthorizes legislation first passed in 2008 and requires the Justice Department to draw up a strategy to counter child sexual exploitation that included creation of task forces, technology, training and public awareness campaigns. 

In a December 2022 report issued just before Biden signed the new law, the Government Accountability Office found that since the original legislation was passed in 2008, the Justice Department missed requirements in the law to publish a strategy every two years. The GAO found that the department issued a strategy only two times instead of the seven times required. 

In June 2023, the department published a new strategy and also announced the appointment of a permanent coordinator to oversee prevention of child sexual exploitation and trafficking.