In his second State of the Union address of his term, President Joe Biden will speak to the nation on Tuesday evening. The president is scheduled to comment on data privacy and children’s online safety issues, according to a White House press release.
According to the briefing, Biden will urge lawmakers from both parties to outlaw targeted advertising to children and to safeguard their safety, health, and privacy. The president will also say that he agrees with putting more stringent transparency requirements on tech firms that gather user data.
These ideas are very similar to what Biden said last year. In his speech in 2022, Biden emphasized the negative effects social media has on children and teenagers’ mental health. The massive document leaks from Facebook insider Frances Haugen, which sparked five Senate hearings on children’s online safety, were specifically mentioned by Biden. Haugen was even invited as a special guest to the event last year by First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, demonstrating the president’s interest in her cause.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) last year as a result of those hearings, which appears to fit Biden’s policy recommendations. KOSA appears to have the best chance of becoming law out of all possible online safety legislation.
The bill would give parents more control over their children’s social media usage, require social media platforms to conduct a yearly independent audit to assess their risk to minors, and allow academics and public interest organizations to use company data to inform their research on children. Users under the age of 16 would also be given the option to protect their information, disable addictive product features, and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.
Blumenthal and Blackburn made a concerted effort to get KOSA included in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill before the new year, but they were unsuccessful.
More than 90 organizations, including the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF), the ACLU, and GLAAD signed an open letter in November outlining the unintended negative effects of this legislation. The letter specifically states that KOSA could mandate the use of age and identity verification technology for any service that could be used by minors.
The letter states that age verification “may require users to submit personally identifiable information to platforms, such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which can pose a threat to users’ privacy, including the possibility of data breaches.” Congress should prioritize ensuring that all users, regardless of age, benefit from strong privacy protections by passing comprehensive privacy legislation rather than age-gating privacy settings and safety tools to only apply to minors.
A culture of surveillance has already been cultivated by tech policy that mandates online age verification. By requiring visitors to Louisiana’s Pornhub to confirm their age using a state-run ID verification app, Pornhub is now in compliance with local law.
The exact opposite of what the law is intended to do, according to the EFF, is what KOSA may require of platforms like Apple’s iMessage, Signal, web browsers, emails, VPNs, and social platforms.
The bill would permit state attorneys general to determine which subjects pose a risk to a minor’s physical and mental health and then force online services to automatically remove and block access to those materials everywhere, according to the EFF. “This is censorship, not safety.”
In the open letter from November, it is specifically discussed how KOSA might be applied to prevent LGBTQ+ youth from accessing sex education and mental health resources. After the bill’s language was changed, the ACLU, EFF, and five other organizations released another letter warning that KOSA could still pose a “deeply threatening to the lives and rights of LGBTQ youth.” The letter also expressed worry about how end-to-end encryption and other privacy technologies would be impacted.
The strength of Biden’s demands for change in his State of the Union address depends on the cooperation of the other branches of the government. However, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case against Google later this month that could have a significant impact on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and profound effects on how people use the internet.