California passes sweeping online safety rules for kids

Technology

California has passed a sweeping law regulating how sites operate for minors. AB 2273, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, passed the state senate and now proceeds to Governor Gavin Newsom, who has not yet indicated whether he’ll sign it. If he does, the bill could raise legal challenges and major questions about the future of anonymity online.

AB 2273 was one of several online regulations floated by California lawmakers. Aimed at making online platforms safer for children, it requires web services “likely to be accessed by children” to conduct a survey assessing the potential risks for users under 18. Among many other measures, the sites must limit using personal information from minors and avoid collecting geolocation data unless “strictly necessary,” among other restrictions. It similarly restricts using “dark patterns,” a general term for manipulative design features that isn’t defined in the text. And the bill requires services to establish the age of child users with a “reasonable level of certainty” to implement higher standards for privacy and safety.

If signed by Newsom, the law is set to take effect in 2024. A similar bill banning “addictive” designs for children failed to pass earlier this month.

AB 2273 mirrors the UK’s “Children’s Code” — unsurprisingly, since it was sponsored by a nonprofit led by Baroness Beeban Kidron, one of the key figures behind the Children’s Code. Kidron’s 5Rights Foundation and other advocates have compared the rule to nutrition labels, testing for cribs and car seats, and other consumer welfare rules.

The bill’s supporters characterize AB 2273 as a necessary supplement to the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA, which restricts collecting information about children under 13 and sets rules for sites that are aimed specifically at children. AB 2273 uses the standard of services “likely” to be accessed by children, encompassing a far larger swathe of services, including many major web platforms. It also raises its age of application to 18. It follows complaints that Instagram and other services “hook” children with addictive features and can make them vulnerable to exploitation or bullying, among other harms.

But the broad scope has raised concern among civil liberty advocates like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who worry its language will push sites to embrace invasive age verification systems — even outside California. Legal writer Eric Goldman, one of AB 2273’s most outspoken critics, has called the requirement to establish users’ ages a “poison pill for the internet.”

The bill may face legal challenges if signed into law. Tech industry groups NetChoice and the CCIA have successfully held up social network regulations in Texas and Florida. It’s possible — but not certain — that they could sue over AB 2273, a bill NetChoice has called unconstitutional. “At this stage, we’re focused on Governor Newsom vetoing this dangerous legislation. When it comes to what happens if he doesn’t, we have nothing to say about that at this point,” says NetChoice spokesperson Krista Chavez.