Sen. Markey wants to crack down on big tech tracking kids online

BOSTON — After a year of remote learning, many kids are spending more time online than ever before. And some lawmakers believe the tech giants are taking note.

Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is working on two pieces of legislation to enhance protections for children when they’re online. He spoke with Boston 25 News Anchor Kerry Kavanaugh about data collection and advertising during a virtual interview from Washington D.C.

“So, my legislation would put a regulatory framework around that and just say to companies, you can’t take advantage of young people,” Markey said.

Senator Markey is the original author of the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act. That 1998 law covers children ages 12 and younger and requires operators of commercial websites and online services directed at children to abide by various privacy safeguards as they collect, use, or disclose personal information about kids.

Earlier this year, he introduced version 2.0 of this legislation to expand those protections to teenagers ages 13-18 and “to update online data privacy rules for the 21st century.”

Later this summer, Markey plans to reintroduce his KIDS Act legislation to prevent children from what he calls harmful content and design features.

“Right now, online, there are predatory companies, taking advantage of children with auto-play built into their design, so that a kid would just go from video to video to video to video, nonstop,” Markey told Kavanaugh. “And other companies are sending push alerts to kids just to say, here’s something that you really should get on right now, kids.”

“So, the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, I understand would include what you’re dubbing an ‘eraser button.’ What does that mean,” Kavanaugh said.

“A parent can just say to accompany a race, every bit of information that you’ve gathered about my child has a right a parent should be able to demand a company to do that,” Markey said. “What you do as a child should not haunt you for the rest of your life. Your parents should be able to say to a company erase all of that information. And similarly, a company should not be able to say that they have a right to target a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old.”

The legislation would encompass all big tech and social media companies even as some are developing apps designed just for kids.

Earlier this year Facebook announced it would create an ‘Instagram for Kids.’ That idea was met with swift criticism from both advocates for children’s online safety and lawmakers.

Kavanaugh reached out to Facebook for a comment on the latest surrounding the development of ‘Instagram for Kids’ which would be specifically designed just for children.

Facebook company spokesperson Stephanie Otway wrote “Kids are already online, and want to connect with their family and friends, have fun, and learn. We want to help them do that in a safe and age-appropriate way, and find practical solutions to the ongoing industry problem of kids lying about their age to access apps. We’re working on new age verification methods to keep under-13s off Instagram and have just started exploring an Instagram experience for kids that is age-appropriate and managed by parents.”

Facebook says the new app for children isn’t about their bottom line.

“We agree that any experience we develop must prioritize safety and privacy, and we will consult with experts in child development, child safety and mental health, and privacy advocates to inform it. We also won’t show ads in any Instagram experience we develop for people under 13,” Otway wrote.

As for the Children and Teens Online Privacy Protection Act, it has bipartisan support and is co-sponsored by Louisiana Republican, Senator Bill Cassidy.

“So, I think when it comes to kids, bipartisanship breaks out,” Markey said. “On both sides of the aisle, we realize that children should not be allowed to be exploited.” He added, “This is our moment, because of COVID, because of what happened because of the online ubiquitous of role that the internet played in the lives of children that now I think on a bipartisan basis, Democrats and Republicans can come together to put the safeguards in place to guard rails to protect children against predatory practices.”