As concerns grow over China’s ownership of TikTok and the effects of social media on children’s mental health, tech regulation has been gaining momentum on Capitol Hill. President Joe Biden has called for bipartisan legislation to impose stricter limits on the collection of personal data and ban targeted advertising to children. Both Republicans and Democrats have introduced several bills to regulate tech, particularly in areas such as children’s online safety and data privacy.
Legislation by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., would require social media companies to be more transparent about their operations and enable child safety settings by default. Minors would have the option to disable addictive product features and algorithms that push certain content. The legislation, reintroduced last week, would also obligate social media companies to prevent certain dangers to minors.
A second bill introduced last month by four senators would prohibit children under the age of 13 from using social media platforms and require parental consent for teenagers. It would also prohibit the companies from recommending content through algorithms for users under the age of 18.
Lawmakers also introduced bills to either ban TikTok or make it easier to ban it after a combative March House hearing. Another bill sponsored by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida would, like Hawley’s bill, ban U.S. economic transactions with TikTok, but it would also create a new framework for the executive branch to block any foreign apps deemed hostile.
In addition to social media regulation, there is a newer question for Congress whether lawmakers should move to regulate artificial intelligence. Senate leader Schumer has made the emerging technology a priority, arguing that the United States needs to stay ahead of China and other countries that are eyeing regulations on AI products. He has been working with AI experts and has released a general framework of what regulation could look like, including increased disclosure of the people and data involved in developing the technology, more transparency and explanation for how the bots arrive at responses.
Critics of the bills argue that they could threaten teens’ online privacy and prevent them from accessing content that could help them. Biden’s State of the Union remarks appeared to be a nod toward legislation by Sens. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Bill Cassidy, R-La., that would expand child privacy protections online, prohibiting companies from collecting personal data from younger teenagers and banning targeted advertising to children and teens. The bill, also reintroduced last week, would create a so-called “eraser button” allowing parents and kids to eliminate personal data, when possible.
While the mammoth tech industry has aggressively fought any federal interference and has operated for decades now without strict federal oversight, the growing bipartisan alignment on tech regulation boosts hopes for compromise in a split Congress. The prospects for the House legislation are unclear now that Republicans have the majority. House Energy and Commerce Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.., has made the issue a priority, holding several hearings on data privacy, but the committee has not yet moved forward with a new bill.