WASHINGTON (AP) — Most Democrats and Republicans agree that the federal government should better regulate the biggest technology companies, particularly social media platforms. But there is very little consensus on how it should be done.
Should TikTok be banned? Should younger children be kept off social media? Can the government make sure private information is secure? What about brand new artificial intelligence interfaces? Or should users be regulating themselves, leaving the government out of it?
Tech regulation is gathering momentum on Capitol Hill as concerns skyrocket about China’s ownership of TikTok and as parents navigating a post-pandemic mental health crisis have grown increasingly worried about what their children are seeing online. Lawmakers have introduced a slew of bipartisan bills, boosting hopes of compromise. But any effort to regulate the mammoth industry would face major obstacles as technology companies have fought interference.
Noting that many young people are struggling, President Joe Biden said in his February State of the Union speech that “it’s time” to pass bipartisan legislation to impose stricter limits on the collection of personal data and ban targeted advertising to children.
“We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit,” Biden said.
Tech companies have aggressively fought any federal interference, and they have operated for decades now without strict federal oversight, making any new rules or guidelines that much more complicated.
A look at some of the areas of potential regulation:
Several House and Senate bills would try to make social media, and the internet in general, safer for children who will inevitably be online. Lawmakers cite numerous examples of teenagers who have taken their own lives after cyberbullying or died engaging in dangerous behavior encouraged on social media.
In the Senate, at least two competing bills are focused on children’s online safety. Legislation by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., approved by the Senate Commerce Committee last year would require social media companies to be more transparent about their operations and enable child safety settings by default. Minors would have the option to disable addictive product features and algorithms that push certain content.
The idea, the senators say, is that platforms should be “safe by design.” The legislation, which Blumenthal and Blackburn reintroduced last week, would also obligate social media companies to prevent certain dangers to minors — including promotion of suicide, disordered eating, substance abuse, sexual exploitation and other illegal behaviors.
A second bill introduced last month by four senators — Democratic Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Katie Britt of Alabama — would take a more aggressive approach, prohibiting children under the age of 13 from using social media platforms and requiring parental consent for teenagers. It would also prohibit the companies from recommending content through algorithms for users under the age of 18.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has not weighed in on specific legislation but told reporters last week, “I believe we need some kind of child protections” on the internet.
Critics of the bills, including some civil rights groups and advocacy groups aligned with tech companies, say the proposals could threaten teens’ online privacy and prevent them from accessing content that could help them, such as resources for those considering suicide or grappling with their sexual and gender identity.
“Lawmakers should focus on educating and empowering families to control their online experience,” said Carl Szabo of NetChoice, a group aligned with Meta, TikTok, Google and Amazon, among other companies.
Biden’s State of the Union remarks appeared to be a nod toward legislation by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would expand child privacy protections online, prohibiting companies from collecting personal data from younger teenagers and banning targeted advertising to children and teens. The bill, also reintroduced last week, would create a so-called “eraser button” allowing parents and kids to eliminate personal data, when possible.