Protecting Kids on Social Media Act Cloaks Attack on Privacy Behind Concern for Children

A father, mother, and little girl happily look at a tablet.
Evgenyatamanenko |

There's seemingly no policy turd that lawmakers are unwilling to polish in the name of "the children." That brings us to the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, currently working its way through the U.S. Senate. This measure borrows bad proposals from another federal bill and combines them with legislative idiocy enacted at the state level. The resulting concoction could destroy internet privacy, subjecting all our online activity to government scrutiny in the name of shielding wee ones from harm.

A Bipartisan Combination of Bad Ideas

Sponsored by Sen. Brian Schatz (D–Hawaii) and co-sponsored by Sen. Tom Cotton (R–Ark.), Sen. Chr Murphy (D-Conn.), and Sen. Katie Boyd Britt (R-Ala.) among others, the Protecting Kids on Social Meda Act generates the sort of cross-aisle consensus that generally only accompanies terrible ideas. The bill "contains elements of the dangerous Kids Online Safety Act as well as several ideas pulled from state bills that have passed this year, such as Utah's surveillance-heavy Social Media Regulations law," write the Electronic Frontier Foundation's (EFF) Jason Kelley and Sophia Cope.

The Kids Online Safety Act, which has 43 cosponsors in the Senate, "ham-handedly aims to shield children and teenagers from vaguely defined dangers lurking on the internet," Jacob Sullum noted earlier this month. "The unintended but foreseeable results are apt to include invasions of privacy that compromise First Amendment rights and a chilling impact on constitutionally protected speech, both of which will harm adults as well as the 'kids' whom the bill is supposed to protect."

Likewise, "under the new Utah laws, social media companies will have to check the ages of new and existing Utah account holders—which of course means collecting and storing identifying information about every Utah user," Elizabeth Nolan Brown summarized in March. "That leaves people's personal information vulnerable to hackers, government snoops, unscrupulous tech employees, and more."

The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act doubles down on bureaucratic control and surveillance of internet activity. As the title of the legislation suggests, its authors find substituting restrictive laws for parental responsibility in the name of shielding children from danger a convenient excuse for imposing controls that people would be unlikely to tolerate under any other circumstance.

According to EFF:

The Protecting Kids on Social Media Act has five major components:

The End of Online Anonymity

It's tempting to conclude that the digital ID pilot program is the real warhead in this particular legislative weapon, since lawmakers and pundits often fret over online anonymity. The bill provides a clear path towards linking internet activity to identities so that, for example, politicians could identify their critics.

"Not later than 2 years after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Commerce (referred to in this section as the 'Secretary') shall establish a pilot program (referred to in this Act as the 'Pilot Program') for providing a secure digital identification credential to individuals who are citizens and lawful residents of the United States at no cost to the individual," reads the text of the bill. The program will "allow individuals to verify their age, or their parent or guardian relationship with a minor user, by uploading copies of government-issued and other forms of identification" or through "electronic records of State departments of motor vehicles, the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, State agencies responsible for vital records, or other governmental or professional records providers…."

The bill contains assurances that users will be able to control and delete their information. But it's a government program; take those promises with a grain of salt. The largest grain of salt accompanies claims that use of the digital ID program will remain voluntary and confined to age verification.

"It's unlikely that age and parental status verification would be its only use after its creation," warn EFF's Kelley and Cope. "Congress could easily change the law with future bills. Just look at the Social Security Number–once upon a time, it was only meant to allow Americans to participate in the federal retirement program. Even the Social Security Administration admits that the number 'has come to be used as a nearly universal identifier.'" (That admission can be found here.)

Regulating Adults in the Name of Protecting Kids

The rest of the bill is largely an exercise by the bill's sponsors in using government force to impose rules on minors' online activity that parents either can't be bothered to apply themselves or choose not to enforce because they flat-out disagree with the lawmakers over what rules are appropriate. That includes the total ban on those under 13 using social media along with parental consent and age-verification requirements for users between 13 and 18 years of age. Of course, you have to check everybody's ID to know who is underage.

"The problems inherent in age verification systems are well known," write Kelley and Cope. "All age verification systems are identity verification systems and surveillance systems. All age verification systems also impact all users because it's necessary to confirm the age of all people in order to keep out one select age group. This means that every social media user would be subjected to potentially privacy-invasive identity verification if they want to use social media."

Government Pushes Parents Out of the Way

Minus the "for the children" marketing pitch, legislation like this is a hard sell in anything resembling a free society. Most people would be hesitant to submit themselves to government identification and surveillance of their online activity. But few people want to be seen as callous towards kids, so "for the children" is an effective sales spiel for bad ideas—including bureaucratic rules and intrusive privacy violations.

But here's the thing: There are already people responsible for regulating children's online activity in the form of parents and guardians. Adults can set screen time limits for kids, check their browser histories, or just take their devices away and send them outside to play. If they don't assert their authority in exactly the way some lawmakers might like, so be it. Free people get to raise their kids by their rules; they aren't bound by the preferences of meddling neighbors or presumptuous legislators.

Sen. Schatz and friends say that they want to protect children from the dangers of social media. But if we want to preserve a free society for generations to come, what we really need to shield our kids from are lawmakers who cloak authoritarian proposals behind facades of concern.

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