California passes first statewide law to create sweeping internet protections for children

Govt. Gavin Newsom has signed a sweeping law that requires tech companies to design their platforms with the well-being of children in mind and to adopt the highest default privacy settings for users under 18.

Assembly Member Buffy Wicks, an Oakland Democrat who carried the bill, said the measure makes California the first state to force social media companies to create safety guardrails for children who use their apps and websites — a move that could nudge tech companies to adopt similar protections worldwide.

“As the mom of two young girls, I am personally motivated to ensure that Silicon Valley’s most powerful companies redesign their products in children’s best interest,” Wicks said in a statement. “The Design Code is a game changer.”

Her bill, AB2273, creates an age-appropriate design code for websites or apps likely to be accessed by children. It prohibits companies from using a child’s online data, such as what terms they search, or otherwise profiling them to power algorithms that promote harmful content. Companies will also be required to automatically provide the highest privacy settings to underage users.

Privacy and behavioral-health experts, who advocated for the bill, said a lack of regulation for tech companies has fueled a mental health epidemic among young people over the past 20 years, including struggles with body image, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and addictive patterns of digital behavior.

“Every day kids navigate the online world and are faced with manipulative designs and addictive features,” Jim Steyer, CEO of Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, said in a statement. “We recognize that this bill is just one step in a long-term effort to protect kids online. But it is a very important step, and time is of the essence.”

The bill was opposed by associations that represent large tech companies. They argued that the state attorney general should have the sole authority to enforce it, so companies can have a chance to fix their mistakes and compare interpretations of the law with state regulators.

“We have the same aim as policymakers, we want to keep young people safe online,” Jeanne Moran, a spokesperson for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said in a statement. “We’re hopeful that continued regulation in this area will seek to preserve teens’ rights to be online, while keeping them safe.”

Last fall, a study leaked by a former employee of Facebook, found that significant percentages of teens said the platform causes them major distress: 17% of girls said using it makes eating disorders worse, and 13.5% of girls said it makes their suicidal thoughts worse. The company has pushed back, and founder Mark Zuckerberg said it conducts such research to understand the impact of its products and proactively design safety features.

State legislators passed AB2273 this summer, with overwhelming bipartisan support. Lawmakers killed a more aggressive bill, AB2408, that would have, in its original form, allowed parents to sue social media platforms if their children become addicted.

Dustin Gardiner (he/him) is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @dustingardiner

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