A day after the Senate’s Commerce Committee unanimously advanced children’s online safety legislation, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal returned to Connecticut to enlist the support of parents and young people in effort to ensure the bill’s final passage.
“The courage of moms and dads, young people is what we want to mobilize and we have no choice because we can’t rely on social media to do the right thing,” Blumenthal said. “They’ve shown that we can’t trust them.”
The state’s senior senator made the comments during a Friday morning press conference held at The Village for Families and Children, a residential and mental health care facility in Hartford. Blumenthal appeared with the facility’s medical director and Connecticut’s Child Advocate to stress the importance of stronger online safeguards for kids.
The Kids Online Safety Act moved out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on a voice vote Thursday alongside a separate bill related to online privacy.
KOSA, a collaboration between Blumenthal and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn, would create a legal obligation for social media sites likely to be used by young people to act in the interest of minors by mitigating the impact of content related to things like suicidal behaviors, substance use, sexual exploitation and eating disorders.
“When [social media sites] could foresee or knew that it was happening, they would be held responsible, legally,” Blumenthal said Friday. “That would be a powerful deterrent for them to take this toxic stuff off their site.”
The bill contains additional provisions requiring sites to provide settings to opt out of content recommended by algorithms. Other elements of the legislation require the disclosure of how targeted advertising systems are used and restrictions on ads related to products like tobacco or gambling.
“The simple fact is that Connecticut and America are in the midst of a mental health crisis that has been aggravated, relentlessly exacerbated by social media, the toxic content that is driven at children about bullying, eating disorders, drugs, even suicide makes them more vulnerable,” Blumenthal said.
During Thursday’s meeting, Blackburn remarked that “Big Tech” had opposed the bill’s progress.
“It puts the burden on Big Tech to do privacy by design and safety by design, to expose these algorithms and to create that safer environment for our children,” Blackburn said.
For too long, the onus of protecting children from online threats has been exclusively on parents, Dr. Laine Taylor, medical director of The Village, said Friday.
“The reality is, long term, we need guardrails and parents can’t be the only ones sustaining that,” Taylor said. “The Internet has so many positives — it allows our marginalized youth to be able to connect where they otherwise wouldn’t. But it’s the same marginalized youth that are at the most risk of perpetrators, of dangers from the Internet.”
This year is not the first time Blumenthal and Blackburn have championed the legislation. The bill advanced out of committee last year but failed to gain final passage. That’s due in part to censorship concerns and worries that the policy could be used to limit access to online support for young people including those within the LGBTQ communities.
Child Advocate Sarah Eagan sought to address some of those concerns during Friday’s press conference, saying the legislation does not seek to eliminate social media altogether.
“The equation is not binary. It’s not like ‘all social media is bad, let’s get rid of it,’” Eagan said. “Nobody’s trying to get rid of it and social media can be a lifeline for certain kids that need to connect with other kids like them. We know that and I think the bill that Senator Blumenthal is leading on acknowledges that.”
The legislation includes language clarifying that the law does not require covered websites to prevent access to online resources to mitigate suicide, substance use or other harmful behaviors.
With a bipartisan group of co-sponsors in the Senate, Blumenthal said he hoped to pass the bill through that chamber at some point after a recess in August before pushing a companion bill in the Republican-controlled House.
“But this bill is genuinely bipartisan. Forty-four cosponsors, evenly divided: Republican and Democrat,” he said.
During Thursday’s Commerce Committee meeting, the panel’s chair, Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, reacted to the bills’ bipartisan approval by tempering expectations.
“I love the enthusiasm and the bipartisan nature today. I will point out we did pass these bills out of committee last year and they languished on the floor,” Cantwell said. “So while we are passing them again, we have work to do if we’re going to get them over the goal line.”