California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a children’s online safety bill, which may change the way social networks, games, and other services treat minors. After that, California will take broader measures to protect the data and privacy of Internet users under the age of 18.
Despite opposition from the tech industry, the California Legislature unanimously passed the California Age-appropriate design code act in late August. This is the first state-level regulation in the United States to require that online services that teens may use provide broad safeguards for users under the age of 18.
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The bill would require websites and apps to restrict certain popular features, such as allowing strangers to message each other because it could pose risks to younger users. In addition, it will require online services to turn on the highest privacy settings for children by default. “We are taking aggressive action in California to protect the health and well-being of our children,” Governor Newsom said in a statement.
The new law forces online services to take proactive security measures, designing products and features with the best interests of young users in mind from the outset. The law could apply to many digital products that people under the age of 18 may use, including social networks, gaming platforms, connected toys, voice assistants, and smart learning tools.
The legislation could also have ramifications beyond California, prompting many services across the country to introduce changes other than discriminating against minors in California. However, many industry groups have opposed the legislation, saying it is too broad and its terms too vague to facilitate implementation.
TechNet, an industry group representing many of America’s biggest tech companies, has pressured California lawmakers to narrow the definition of “child” in the bill to people under 16, not minors under 18. The agency also warned that many online services for general audiences could be accessed by children, which would make a large number of websites and apps subject to the new bill.
The measure could also have adverse consequences for adults, according to several civil liberties experts. To force websites to treat children differently, popular services aimed at general audiences could set up intrusive age-verification systems that require all users to provide companies with sensitive personal information, they warned.
But children’s groups say the legislation is necessary to protect young users from automated systems that could expose minors to harmful content, expose them to adult strangers or prompt them for hours on end online. Earlier this month, Irish regulators fined Facebook parent Meta $400 million for breaching European data protection rules when it handled children’s data on Instagram.
The California law is due to take effect in 2024, and the U.K. last year introduced sweeping online protections for minors. At the time, major platforms such as Google, YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Snap, and others announced new safeguards for young users around the world.