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Spokane council members pressure federal lawmakers to protect kids by regulating social media companies

Meta (formerly Facebook) corporate headquarters is seen in Menlo Park, Calif., on Nov. 9.  (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)

Spokane lawmakers are pressuring the region’s Congressional delegation to pass a slate of social media regulations aimed at protecting children.

“The kids are not all right,” said City Council President-elect Betsy Wilkerson, who was joined by Councilman Jonathan Bingle and others to advocate for the passage of the Kids Online Safety Act, a federal bill that would require social media companies and the owners of other online platforms to shield users under age 17 from harmful content and default to strict privacy settings.

“(The Kids Online Safety Act) will provide children with accessible and easy to use safeguards, including features that allow children to control their personalized recommendations,” Wilkerson said, reading from a prepared statement. “A user would be able to turn off systems or limit types of toxic content being sent to them.”

If approved, the Kids Online Safety Act would be the first major legislation to increase the protections of children online in 25 years, argued Chauntelle Lieske, executive director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness Spokane. Lieske was referring to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, the constitutionality and effectiveness of which has been criticized for decades, though that law has resulted in multimillion-dollar settlements, such as the $170 million penalty YouTube agreed to in 2019 over alleged privacy violations.

The Kids Online Safety Act was first introduced in February 2022, following Meta whistleblower Frances Haugen’s revelations about how the company behind Instagram and Facebook created features that it knew would harm kids and teens.

The bill has the support of the American Psychological Association, Eating Disorders Coalition, American Academy of Pediatrics and other groups concerned with kids’ welfare, who argue that social media companies need to be forced to change features of their platforms that have been linked to depression, bullying, eating disorders, inappropriate sexual interactions with adults and more.

“While declines in youth mental health are attributable to numerous factors, the growing use of social media platforms designed in ways that increase exposure to harmful content and encourage unhealthy patterns of use have contributed to these trends,” these groups wrote in a July letter to Congressional leaders, including U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

The bill’s detractors include the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and many of the companies that would be subject to additional regulation, the latter of which have quietly lobbied against the legislation. These groups have argued that such a new law would mandate censorship by forcing companies to install filters, which could result in anything deemed controversial or inappropriate for minors being removed from the internet. It would also expand the use of age verification and parental monitoring tools, which would require companies to collect more data on users, not less.

“Not only are these tools needlessly invasive, they’re a massive safety risk for young people who could be trying to escape domestic violence and abuse,” wrote Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit, on a website dedicated to opposing the bill.

Some LGBTQ-rights organizations have also warned that the bill could be used by different states to prevent children from accessing information about gender dysphoria or gender-affirming medical care.

“Places that already use content filters have restricted important information about suicide prevention and LGBTQ+ support groups, and KOSA would spread this kind of censorship to every corner of the internet,” Fight for the Future wrote.

Advocates say amendments to the bill in the last year made explicit carve-outs to prevent the law from being used to restrict access to information about LGBTQ issues or other politically controversial topics.

The bill has bipartisan support, introduced in the Senate by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., but there isn’t broad enough support for the legislation to easily become law.

Wednesday’s news conference was part of efforts to lobby lawmakers and get the legislation over the finish line, said Ramsey Cox, an independent consultant working with Cause Campaign Partners, a political consulting firm working on behalf of the Eating Disorders Coalition. The region’s lawmakers are in key positions to shepherd the bill through Congress, including Cantwell, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Technology that advanced the bill to the Senate floor in a unanimous vote in 2022, and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, who is the top Republican on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

“I’ve heard from too many grieving parents that online platforms need to be made safer,” Cantwell wrote in an email. “That’s why the Senate Commerce Committee passed the Kids Online Safety Act – twice, last year and this year – and why I will continue to do everything I can to get this legislation done.”

McMorris Rodgers has previously opposed the Kids Online Safety Act, arguing that passing comprehensive data privacy legislation – minimizing the data companies could collect – would better address the problems the act aims to fix.

“The congresswoman is committed to working with Senator Cantwell and others to protect kids online,” Kyle VonEnde, spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, wrote in an email.

VonEnde did not clarify whether the McMorris Rodgers continued to oppose the Kids Online Safety Act and did not respond to further email.