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Cantwell, McMorris Rodgers at center of year-end push in Congress to protect kids online

Nov. 25, 2022 Updated Sat., Nov. 26, 2022 at 9:44 p.m.

WASHINGTON – A year-end push to pass bipartisan legislation aimed at protecting children online illustrates the vexing challenge Congress faces in regulating social media platforms – and offers a preview of the power two Washington lawmakers could have to rein in “Big Tech” next year.

Advocates of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to shield users under 17 from harmful content and default to strict privacy settings, headed to Capitol Hill on Nov. 15 after sending a letter asking Sen. Maria Cantwell – the Washington Democrat who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology – to include the legislation in a catch-all spending package Congress likely will pass in December.

The bill would require tech companies to act in the “best interest” of minors who use their platform – including by disabling “addictive” features – and to create a dedicated channel for children and their parents to report harms, in addition to mandating greater transparency about how platforms use algorithms and kids’ personal data.

Cantwell’s panel advanced the bill in a unanimous vote in July, and the committee released a statement Nov. 15 saying Cantwell wants Congress to pass it before year’s end. The following day, the senator met with a group of parents that holds tech companies accountable for harm to their children, including deaths by suicide and from dangerous viral “challenges.”

But the bill hasn’t been introduced in the House, where Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane is the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

In a statement, McMorris Rodgers signaled she would not support the Kids Online Safety Act because she favors similar protections included in broader online privacy legislation that has advanced in her committee. Despite having bipartisan support, that bill is opposed by Cantwell and a handful of California Democrats who object to how it would partially override a California law.

“We share the concerns of parents who have lost loved ones to the harms of social media, which is why we’ve worked closely with many of these groups on our landmark American Data Privacy and Protection Act,” McMorris Rodgers said, adding that her broader bill provides “a clear path” for protecting kids online.

The Kids Online Safety Act could become law without the support of McMorris Rodgers if it’s added to the omnibus spending package Congress needs to pass to keep the government open, but the Spokane Republican isn’t the only one with objections to the children’s safety bill.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates civil liberties online, has asked lawmakers to oppose the legislation unless revisions are made, calling it “a dangerous bill that presents censorship and surveillance as a solution to some legitimate, and some not-so-legitimate, issues facing young internet users today.”

While the foundation supports provisions in the bill that would expand privacy protections to more minors, the group wants Congress to extend those protections to users of any age, as the bill backed by McMorris Rodgers aims to do. Meanwhile, the foundation argues the Kids Online Safety Act is overly broad and would require platforms to censor content and collect even more data on users to verify their ages.

Governments have rushed to regulate social media companies after a whistleblower who worked at Facebook, which owns Instagram, revealed in 2021 the company knew its platforms harmed children. Those revelations accelerated efforts to pass new laws in the United Kingdom, the European Union and elsewhere. California passed its own law in September, putting pressure on Congress to set a nationwide standard.

But the disagreements over the Kids Online Safety Act show how hard it is for lawmakers to regulate tech companies, whose ubiquitous products and services exert powerful influence over Americans’ lives, without overreaching or causing unintended side effects. Two years after Democrats seized the trifecta of House, Senate and White House control and stated their aim of regulating tech companies, the party has little to show for it.

Now, McMorris Rodgers is expected to lead GOP efforts to rein in “Big Tech” as chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee beginning in January, after Republicans won a narrow majority in the House in the midterms. That means if Congress wants to get anything done to regulate platforms like TikTok and Instagram in the next two years, it will depend on Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers working together on bipartisan legislation.

When Congress returns to work Monday, lawmakers will have until Dec. 16 to pass another spending bill and avert a government shutdown, although they could also pass another stopgap bill to buy time to finalize a deal. The 118th Congress will be sworn in on Jan. 3.

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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