California passes major children’s online safety law

Tech

(NewsNation) — California lawmakers passed a major digital safety law this week that will require tech companies to install guardrails for children younger than 18 who use their online products.

Passage of the bill, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, marks a major new step in regulating the tech industry. The effort by legislators was part of a nationwide push to hold companies such as Snapchat, TikTok and Instagram accountable for how their apps may affect children’s health and safety.

Advocates say the bill will make California a national leader on online kids’ safety. Democratic Asseblywoman Buffy Wicks co-sponsored the bill with a Republican colleague, Jordan Cunningham.

“My hope is that now with the passage here in California, and hopefully soon to get the governor’s signature, it will be a model for the rest of the country and the world to keep our kids safe online,” Wicks told The Washington Post.

The California Senate voted unanimously to approve the measure Monday, and the State Assembly previously approved an earlier version of the bill. Gov. Gavin Newsom has not indicated whether he’ll sign it.

The bipartisan legislation requires companies to assess how any digital services or products might harm children and “prioritize the privacy, safety, and well-being of children over commercial interests” when the two conflict.

Apps must default to the highest privacy settings in most cases and also provide children “an obvious sign” when their geolocation is being collected.

Businesses violating the provisions are subject to civil fines up to $7,500 per child who is affected.

Groups that advocate for stronger online protections for kids, including Common Sense Media, lauded the bill’s passage.

“The action … sends an important signal about the need to make children’s online health and safety a greater priority for lawmakers and for our tech companies, particularly when it comes to websites that are accessed by young users,” Common Sense Media CEO Jim Steyer said in a statement.

Tech industry trade groups such as NetChoice have lobbied against the bill, arguing it violates constitutional rights and would hamper innovation.

“California has been a leader in technology development, but the legislature’s actions would give innovators yet another reason to leave the Golden State to avoid overly burdensome regulation that harms families and violates the First Amendment,” said Jennifer Huddleston, NetChoice policy counsel. 

Others have raised concerns that the bill might actually end up eroding online privacy. One provision requires that platforms “estimate the age of child users,” which Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law, warned in an op-ed could be overly intrusive.

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