California passes a law aimed at making the Internet safer for children

A girl stares at her computer screen

Alain Jocard | AFP | Getty Images

The California state legislature passed a bill this week that, if passed, would require online platforms to take additional steps to ensure their services are safe for young users.

The State Senate unanimously approved the California Age Appropriate Design Code Act on Monday, a bill that would require online platforms to proactively consider how their product design might pose a danger to minors, including through algorithms and targeted ads. The California state assembly previously passed a version of the bill, which has yet to be signed by Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom to become state law. If signed, the bill would not go into effect until 2024.

The bill would require online services to install additional safeguards for users under the age of 18, including by defaulting to the highest possible privacy settings in most cases and providing “a clear signal” to the child when the its location is being monitored (eg by a parent or guardian).

It would also prohibit the use of so-called dark patterns – essentially design tricks designed to direct users towards a specific choice – which would encourage minors to provide personal information that would not be necessary to provide the service.

California legislation could become the basis for other state or federal design codes, or it could even encourage platforms to proactively adjust their services across the country, in part due to the difficulty of enforcing different standards based on location .

The bill echoes a recent design code in Britain that sought to create groundlines for keeping children safe on the internet. Federal lawmakers like Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have lauded the British design code and suggested its principles should be adopted in the United States

The idea of ​​requiring design safeguards became a particularly hot topic in Congress late last year when former Facebook employee Frances Haugen testified on internal documents it exposed that showed the company was aware of how its products could harm the mental health of children. Facebook said it works hard to protect user safety and that the documents revealed by Haugen lack critical context.

Groups advocating for stronger internet barriers for children, such as Common Sense Media, have praised the Senate’s passage of the law.

In a statement, CEO Jim Steyer called it “a monumental step toward keeping California’s children safe online.”

Accountable Tech, a group that has backed federal antitrust legislation against Big Tech platforms, also lauded the news.

“If signed into law, this landmark legislation would represent a sea change in the fight for online privacy,” co-founder and executive director Nicole Gill said in a statement.

But others have expressed concern about the bill.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, warned in a editorial earlier this month that the bill’s requirements that platforms seek to assess the age of users to serve them appropriate, albeit well-intentioned, content could be overly intrusive and undermine efforts to provide these users with more privacy .

TechNet, an industry group funded by technology companies including Amazonia, Apple, Google and Half, raised concerns about the bill. (Comcastthe owner of CNBC parent company NBCUniversal, is also a TechNet member).

“Even as this bill has improved, we remain concerned about its unintended consequences in California and across the country,” Dylan Hoffman, group executive director for California and the Southwest, said in a statement.

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