President Joe Biden will address the nation on Tuesday evening in the second State of the Union address of his term. Per a release from the White House, the president is expected to weigh in on children’s online safety issues, as well as data privacy.
The briefing says that Biden will call on bipartisan lawmakers to ban targeted advertising toward young people, and protect children’s privacy, health and safety. The president will also express his support for imposing stronger transparency requirements on tech companies that collect user data.
These points are nearly identical to Biden’s comments last year. At the 2022 address, Biden highlighted the mental health impacts of social media on kids and teens. Biden specifically nodded to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen‘s massive document leaks, which sparked a series of five Senate hearings on children’s online safety. First Lady Dr. Jill Biden even invited Haugen to last year’s event as a special guest, indicating the president’s attention to her advocacy.
As a result of those hearings, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) last year, which seems to check the boxes of Biden’s policy suggestions. Of all potential online safety legislation, KOSA seems most likely to gain steam.
The bill would require social media companies to provide users under age 16 with the option to protect their information, disable addictive product features and opt out of algorithmic recommendations; give parents more control over their child’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’s internet safety.
Before the new year, Blumenthal and Blackburn made a concerted push to pass KOSA as part of the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, but they did not succeed.
In November, more than 90 organizations — including the ACLU, GLAAD and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF) — signed onto an open letter that outlines the unintended negative consequences of this legislation. In particular, the letter says that KOSA could require any service that may be used by minors to use age and identity verification technology.
“Age verification may require users to provide platforms with personally identifiable information such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which can threaten users’ privacy, including through the risk of data breaches,” the letter reads. “Rather than age-gating privacy settings and safety tools to apply only to minors, Congress should focus on ensuring that all users, regardless of age, benefit from strong privacy protections by passing comprehensive privacy legislation.”
Already, tech policy that enforces online age verification has engendered a culture of surveillance. In Louisiana, Pornhub now complies with state legislation by requiring visitors to verify their age through a state-run ID verification app.
According to the EFF, KOSA could require platforms like Apple’s iMessage, Signal, web browsers, emails, VPNs and social platforms to collect more user data, which is the exact opposite of what the legislation purports to do.
“Perhaps even worse, the bill would allow individual state attorneys general to decide which topics pose a risk to the physical and mental health of a minor, and allow them to force online services to remove and block access to that material everywhere, by default,” the EFF wrote in an online petition. “This isn’t safety — it’s censorship.”
The November open letter specifically outlines the ways in which KOSA could be used to restrict LGBTQ+ youth from accessing sex education and mental health resources. After an amendment to the bill, the ACLU, EFF and five other groups published another letter stating that even with new language, KOSA could still be “deeply threatening to the lives and rights of LGBTQ youth.” The letter also expressed concern with how end-to-end encryption would be impacted, among other privacy tech.
Biden’s calls for change in his State of the Union address are only as powerful as the other branches of government allow. But later this month, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in a lawsuit against Google that could impact Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which would have massive implications for how people use the internet.