A bipartisan social media bill championed by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., overcame a hurdle on Thursday as a committee once again approved legislation aiming to protect minors online and hold tech companies accountable.
The vote before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation comes a few months after he reintroduced The Kids Online Safety Act alongside Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. Congress came close to taking it up at the end of the last session in late 2022 but ultimately punted on the issue as other tech and privacy bills failed to make it to final passage.
For a second time, the committee approved KOSA unanimously — this time through a voice vote — along with a children’s online data privacy bill that Blumenthal also supports.
The latter bill would update The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, which protects children under age 13. The new legislation, pushed by Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., known as COPPA 2.0, would ban targeted advertising to minors and extend protections to users between ages 13 and 16.
Both pieces of legislation can now be considered on the Senate floor, but a timeline is uncertain. There is an expectation that further changes could be made to the bill. Plus, there are no companion bills in the House.
The push to pass online safety and privacy legislation remains a challenge for stakeholders and lawmakers as tech bills have largely languished in Congress despite broad bipartisan support. KOSA has garnered its most support to date, with more than 40 co-sponsors split between the parties.
Plus, concerns from some civil liberties and LGBTQ+ rights groups persist about potential censorship of younger users, debate over what content is deemed “appropriate” and the discretion that would be given to state attorneys general.
But Blumenthal said he is “very hopeful” about the fate of the bill and getting a floor vote in the Senate because they have much more time this session to get it done.
Last session, “we had to craft the legislation, we had to work with some of the groups, we just ran out of time,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “Our leadership is extremely supportive and sympathetic. They recognize that the politics here are very much on our side.”
Blumenthal also pointed to the powerful lobbying efforts of social media and tech companies opposed to the bill. He argued that holding a vote before the full Senate will force lawmakers to publicly deal with the issue and own their position.
“They prevailed, but this time around, what we want is a floor vote, where it’s all out in the open and colleagues have to go on record,” he said. “They can’t kill it behind the scenes.”
KOSA aims to put in place stricter settings by allowing children and parents to disable addictive features, enable privacy settings and opt out of algorithmic recommendations. It requires tech companies to conduct an annual independent audit to analyze the risks to minors and see if they are working to reduce it.
The bill also establishes a “duty of care” for sites that are likely used by young individuals “to act in the best interests of a minor” in matters related to certain mental health disorders, physical violence, online bullying and sexual exploitation.
Since its introduction in early 2022, Blumenthal and Blackburn have made several changes to try to address critics’ ongoing concerns about censorship and the authority of state attorneys general. KOSA now specifies the issues surrounding mental health instead of a broad interpretation when it comes to duty of care: suicidal behaviors, anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance use disorders.
It also identifies protections for services like the National Suicide Hotline, substance abuse organizations and LGBTQ+ youth centers. The clarification likely seeks to assuage concerns that the bill would prevent vulnerable children from reaching vital services. Blumenthal also noted that schools and educational software are excluded from the measure.
Some concerns, however, still remain from both advocates and lawmakers.
At Thursday’s hearing, Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she has heard from LGBTQ+ advocates about “continuing concerns” about KOSA. She noted that lawmakers will keep working to address them.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he would like to consider adding a pre-emption provision since a number of states across the country have passed their own social media laws that “may be inconsistent with this bill.” He said he feared it would become a “litigation magnet.”
Other social media bills, including from lawmakers in Connecticut, are still on the table.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who has also signed onto KOSA, introduced his own bipartisan social media bill in April alongside Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark. Over the past few months, the bill gained half a dozen co-sponsors.
The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act would bar anyone under 13 from using social media and require minors between 13 and 17 to get consent from a parent or legal guardian to sign up. The bill would also block social media companies from recommending content through algorithms for people under 18.
Blumenthal and some youth-led advocacy groups have raised concerns about age verification of minors and the ability to enforce such requirements, though Blumenthal noted the two measures share some common goals when it comes to reining in the algorithms that suggest and monitor what users see on their accounts.
Schatz, who sits on the Senate Commerce Committee, had an amendment to KOSA at Thursday’s hearing but withdrew it since The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act is expected to get its own markup later in the year.
“We’re trying to see if there’s a possibility … for parts of our bill to come together with Sen. Blumenthal’s bill,” Murphy said in an interview. “But whichever direction we go, we should tackle social media on the floor of the Senate this year.”
Blumenthal said he is talking with Murphy and Schatz about possible consensus in some areas of protecting children online but noted the tenuous situation of trying to get legislation through Congress with the most support possible.
“We welcome different ideas, and we’re seeking to accommodate the best of them,” Blumenthal said. “We want to keep together our coalition based on this very carefully crafted combination of ideas that is frankly most importantly supported by parents and young people who see this problem firsthand. They’re not in favor of age cutoffs and certain kinds of bans.”
Cantwell confirmed that she wants to work with Murphy’s group after the August recess and get a future markup of the bill in front of her committee, though the exact timing is unclear.
The Kids Online Safety Act “isn’t the last of privacy issues that we will consider in this committee,” Cantwell said. “And we hope that when we return in September, we will be considering many more other issues related to this as well.”
The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.