Texas is in great shape to become the national leader in protecting children online. It couldn’t come too soon. Excessive social media use and spending time online has been linked in numerous studies to disastrous physical, emotional, and mental health issues for kids.
At a recent hearing in the Texas State House, a dozen witnesses testified in support of HB 18, the legislative reform that would be one of the strongest measures in the country for ensuring data privacy, kids’ online safety, and parental empowerment. The witnesses shared tragic and heart wrenching stories about harms they, their siblings, children, friends, patients, and others have experienced online, including cyberbullying, eating disorders, self-harm, drugs, sexual exploitation, and suicide.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees Texas should take bold action, namely the very tech companies that prey on device-addicted children. For years, these companies have known about the harm their products create and responded by hiding the research and doubling down on attracting even younger users.
So it would seem they earned their comeuppance having their lobbyists hauled in front of the committee to explain their devious actions, apologize, and work with policymakers to protect the public. While the companies finally showed up, that’s not what happened.
Instead, the well-heeled lobbyists and company representatives sowed confusion about the consequences of the bill, making outlandish claims such as not being able to sell t-shirts with a “D.A.R.E” or “Margaritaville” logo. They continue to claim they are already doing just fine protecting kids online, which came as a surprise to the witnesses who told of how easily child predators, drug dealers, and human traffickers stalk potential victims.
The lobbyists delivered contradictory talking points, saying it was too difficult to comply with age verification rules, but could somehow simultaneously know that very few users were under 13 years old.
But how do they know users are under 13? This is where things quickly took a dystopian turn. One company testified that when an individual signs up they give their age, then the company uses artificial intelligence-driven algorithms to “find accounts where someone may be misrepresenting their age and then put them through a verification process.” Another company testified they use machine learning for age verification. When pressed if facial recognition or biometrics were used, the company evaded the question and said they would flag, for example, a user watching content for very young children. As another example, wishing someone a happy 12th birthday would raise suspicion that a user is underage.
Furthermore, one company testified that the duty to prevent harm provisions in the bill would be “an impossible requirement for us to meet.” It is hard to understand how this company’s algorithm is so powerful that it can help users find a good “needle in the world’s largest video haystack” but find it utterly impossible to put dangerous needles back into the haystack so users cannot find them.
By the end, it was clear their goal of creating confusion had worked. So, let’s be clear about what HB 18 actually does:
One, service providers can no longer harvest and use a minor’s personal data – like address, geo-location, biometric information, and search history – without a parent’s consent. Two, parents could control a child’s account and privacy settings. Three, parents must consent to any agreement made between the company and the child, including account creation. Four, tech companies must exercise “reasonable care” to prevent exposure to harmful content. Five, advertisements must be labeled as such, and parents should be able to get information on why their child was targeted with that ad. And finally, the bill requires companies to be transparent about their algorithms, the primary source of delivering harmful content to kids.
HB 18 is also very clear as to what these terms mean, and which entities are covered or excluded by the rules. No small business or company exercising reasonable care is going to get shut down for selling a Margaritaville t-shirt.
In short, this reform gives parents a fighting chance to protect their kids from the harms that exist online, as well as the uncaring, unresponsive corporations fueling cyberaddiction.
People’s kids are dying and the tech companies act like it’s all a big misunderstanding. But it is they who misunderstand the resolve state legislators have to protect their constituents. Members will see through the smoke and mirrors and do the right thing for Texas kids.