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CT’s senators differ on social media protections for children

FILE, 2022: Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., right, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., attend a memorial on the National Mall to remember victims of gun violence where members of Congress called for action on gun safety legislation, on Tuesday, June 7, 2022.
Tom Williams
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CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Image
Sens. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., right, and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., attend a memorial on the National Mall to remember victims of gun violence where members of Congress called for action on gun safety legislation.

Connecticut’s two U.S. senators, who are usually aligned on key policy issues, are split on one that has garnered wide bipartisan support and interest: how to protect children online and hold tech companies accountable.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., helped introduce new efforts on Wednesday with a bipartisan bill that would bar anyone under 13 from using social media platforms and require that minors between 13 and 17 get consent from a parent or legal guardian to sign up. The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act would also block social media companies from recommending content through algorithms for people under 18.

But Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., who has his own online safety legislation, raised concerns about the age verification of minors and the ability to enforce such requirements. He noted the two bills share some common goals, however, when it comes to reining in the algorithms that suggest and monitor what users see on their accounts.

Blumenthal and Murphy’s differing approaches on social media highlight the broader challenges for Congress when it comes to trying to meaningfully rein in Big Tech and protect children on the internet.

Some major social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok already ban those under 13 from using their sites, though critics say they can easily get around those bans. Many lawmakers argue that children and teenagers are getting addicted to using social media. Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who is a sponsor of the latest social media bill, contends that these companies “monetize minor’s eyeballs for their profits.”

The legislation is personal for Murphy, who is a father of two young children. He described watching his own kids interact with the benefits and negatives of social media. At a press conference on Wednesday, Murphy and a trio of lawmakers warned of the addictive nature of these sites and the personal and emotional toll it can take, especially for users under 18.

“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the four of us are all raising young children today because parents want and deserve tools to help keep their kids safe online,” Murphy said.

“This is one of the most apolitical conversations I have in Connecticut. The opportunity here is to really frame this inside this building the same way that it exists out there in the public,” he added. “It actually unites people of differing political views around one very simple premise — that parents should have better tools to protect their kids.”

Questions, however, linger on age verification of these users along with the enforcement of such a federal ban. A couple of outside groups, like the youth-led coalition Design It For Us, said a bill focused on age identification and parental control “misses the mark” and should instead focus on “age appropriate design code” to keep children safe online.

“I think this bill potentially lacks any accountability for Big Tech itself and puts the burden on parents to be police wardens,” Blumenthal said on Wednesday. “Parents should have tools to disconnect from the algorithms, but the idea of consent I think really puts the burden on them to communicate with the Big Tech platforms in effect to attest that in some way they are letting Big Tech off the hook.”

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, pushed back on those concerns, saying the bill will “raise the standards” for verifying users’ ages but prohibit those companies from using that information for any other reasons. It also gives the platforms the ability to come up with their own stronger age verification methods. Enforcement of these requirements would be left up to the Federal Trade Commission and state attorneys general.

Murphy is an original co-sponsor of the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act along with Sen. Katie Britt, R-Ala., which was introduced by Cotton and Schatz. Britt said she faces challenges with social media when it comes to her own teenagers, saying “we’re parenting in a new age.”

In recent months, Murphy has become more outspoken on the effects of tech companies on minors and the general public. He argues that social media helped fuel what he calls the “loneliness epidemic.” He wants Congress to address the mental health crisis and the isolation many young people feel that exacerbates divisions around the country.

Similar legislation regarding how younger users experience the internet exists at both the federal and the state level. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., proposed his own legislation this year barring children under 16 from signing up for social media. And Utah and Arizona enacted new laws blocking users under 18.

But Blumenthal, who is seeking swift passage of his Kids Online Safety Act this session, was skeptical about imposing social media age requirements. He believes they are difficult to enforce and would not solve the problem of protecting children online.

“I don’t think age limits are a cure for toxic content. If they’re going to drive content through algorithms at kids, putting age limits on it I don’t think is the solution,” Blumenthal said in an interview in early March. “I am certainly in favor of any kind of protective guardrails that help protect kids, and I’m open to any ideas too.”

Blumenthal’s bipartisan bill, co-authored with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., aims to put in place stricter settings on online sites used by minors by allowing children and parents to disable addictive features, enable privacy settings and opt out of algorithmic recommendations.

His bill establishes a “duty of care” for websites that are likely used by young individuals “to act in the best interests of a minor” in matters related to mental health disorders, addiction-like behaviors, physical violence, online bullying, sexual exploitation and the promotion of narcotic drugs or “predatory, unfair or deceptive marketing practices.”

While the legislation ultimately got left out of a year-end bill to fund the government, Blumenthal believes there is enough bipartisan support to pass the bill, potentially as early as this year. He said the bill will be reintroduced “very shortly,” noting that there will likely be 15 to 20 co-sponsors from senators in both parties. Murphy will be one of the co-sponsors of The Kids Online Safety Act, according to a Senate aide.

But the Kids Online Safety Act faces more than just legislative hurdles. Civil liberties and LGBTQ+ rights groups continue to raise concerns about censorship of young users, debate over what content is deemed “appropriate” and the discretion given to state attorneys general.

While Blumenthal and other senators are exercising some caution about the latest social media legislation, Schatz believes there is an appetite in Congress to pass several tech-related bills, including the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which specifically deals with age verification.

“We believe [the Kids Online Safety Act] is compatible with this legislation, and that there’s lots of momentum in the Senate and in the House, on the Democratic and the Republican side of the aisle, to do a suite of things on behalf of kids on online safety,” Schatz said.

“We don’t believe the current age verification regime is actually working,” he added. “We want to empower parents, and we think parents agree with us.”

Blumenthal separately echoed that there are shared priorities in the two bills on algorithms and that he hopes to find “consensus” among the proposals.

“Algorithms and the dangers and evils they pose are a common theme,” Blumenthal said.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

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.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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