Lawmakers Hope TikTok Is Just The Start Of Push To Rein In Social Media Harms

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WASHINGTON — Congress has just sent a bill to President Joe Biden’s desk that would ban the popular video-sharing app TikTok unless it divests from its Chinese parent company.

The legislation is a shocking crackdown on a social media business, but it comes as lawmakers dawdle on whether to rein in the broader industry or protect Americans’ digital privacy.

“It can’t just be about TikTok,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told HuffPost. “TikTok is the worst of these social media sites in terms of damage it can do, but Instagram does damage, YouTube does damage.”

Murphy is the co-author of a bipartisan bill, with Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Katie Britt (R-Ala.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), that would outlaw social media accounts for children under 13 and require parental consent for kids under 18.

It’s one of several proposals to create new standards for online safety and digital privacy that’ve been sitting on a shelf as the TikTok ban sailed through the House and Senate with surprising speed.

Murphy has previously worked on bipartisan deals responding to high-profile national problems, most notably with gun control in 2022. He and other lawmakers blame apps for higher suicide rates among young people and the proliferation of child sexual abuse material.

“Social media is just as dangerous as cigarettes, if not more dangerous, and the fact that parents realize that but government doesn’t is part of what drives the illegitimacy of government,” Murphy said.

Four years ago Congress raised the age for purchasing cigarettes from 18 to 21, a major no-brainer. But recently, after back-to-back mass shootings by teenagers in 2022, Murphy was unable to convince Republicans to do the same for the gun-buying age. So if regulating social media is common sense, that doesn’t guarantee Congress will act.

In the meantime, state lawmakers are passing their own laws to protect kids online and ban them from social media, as Florida did last month. Sacha Haworth, the executive director of the Tech Oversight Project, said that federal lawmakers should use their momentum from the TikTok bill to take the lead on the issue.

“If you ask the parents of kids who have been harmed ... it’s because there’s been a dearth of leadership at the federal level,” Haworth said. “I would encourage congress to continue the winning streak of taking on Big Tech.”

The most popular piece of social media legislation in the U.S. Senate, the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, would create a “duty of care” for social media companies to mitigate harms to minors, such as by not pummeling them with content encouraging eating disorders. The bill would also require companies to allow minors to opt out of “personalized recommendation systems,” or algorithms, that are optimized to keep users glued to their screens.

“We’ve worked on it for three years and we have a very powerful consensus,” the bill’s lead sponsor, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), said in an interview. “There’s no reason to wait for any other bill to move ahead on kids’ online safety.”

The Kids Online Safety Act has 68 co-sponsors in the Senate, meaning that it would easily pass if it were put up for a vote. Blumenthal said that Democratic leadership has shown a “strong interest” in allowing a vote, and that he’s optimistic one will happen this year. A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who recently stated that the Senate has a chance to “advance online safety for kids,” couldn’t say if there would eventually be a vote. Even if there were, the House has a slightly different version of the bill, so the two would need to be reconciled, and passing complex legislation can be difficult in presidential election years.

Blumenthal and other Democrats rejected the idea that the TikTok divestiture bill was a missed opportunity for something more ambitious. They said that TikTok is a national security threat, with the Chinese government potentially using the platform to mine American users’ data while inundating them with political propaganda, and that it’s a separate issue from the broader problem of social media poisoning people’s brains.

“The divestiture bill is a national security bill; it’s not a tech policy bill,” Schatz said. “Whatever we think about social media companies, that’s for another day.”

The debate over the TikTok bill, Britt said, actually has helped show the broader harm of social media. TikTok has encouraged its users to contact Congress to complain about the possible ban, resulting in tons of calls to members’ offices — including some that only made lawmakers more certain that they were doing the right thing.

“I’ve been getting death threats, children calling and saying, you know, ‘If TikTok is no longer, we are going to commit suicide,’” Britt said. “I mean, that in and of itself tells you how unhealthy all of this is.”

As for the Kids Online Safety Act, Schatz co-sponsored the bill but thinks it doesn’t go far enough because it still allows children to have social media accounts.

“What we need is a federal statutory law to delay the onset of the use of social media, which is now well-established to cause anxiety, polarization, isolation, bad mental health outcomes, bad physical outcomes,” Schatz said. “The data is in, and social media is bad for children.”

The tech industry and civil liberties groups say that “age-gating” the internet violates the First Amendment. And federal courts have tended to agree, stopping several state laws requiring companies to verify users’ ages.

“You can’t end-run the First Amendment,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for the tech trade group NetChoice, which sued to block the laws. “The First Amendment applies to all Americans regardless of age.”

Szabo said that even though KOSA doesn’t explicitly tell tech companies to verify their users’ ages, its “duty of care” provisions are tantamount to age verification requirements. He said that Congress should instead set a national standard for data privacy that would protect consumers from corporate abuses.

Earlier this month Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the chairs of the Senate and House committees on commerce, joined forces on a broad data privacy bill curtailing companies’ power to track people and sell their data, while allowing consumers to opt out of targeted advertising.

The American Privacy Rights Act represents a major breakthrough on data privacy policy, partly because Democrats and Republicans have disagreed about whether to preempt tougher state privacy laws, but Cantwell and McMorris Rodgers described it as a discussion draft. McMorris Rodgers held a hearing on the privacy proposal as well as KOSA and several related measures last week. Cantwell’s committee last year approved KOSA unanimously.

On Capitol Hill, momentum can be a phantom. During a January hearing with Meta boss Mark Zuckerberg, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) sounded a fatalistic note about his bill with Blumenthal to take away internet platforms’ immunity for violations of laws related to online child sexual abuse material. The proposal has previously passed the Senate Judiciary Committee twice and nothing happened.

“It’s all talk right now, but there’ll come a day, if we keep pressing, to get the right answer for the American people,” Graham said.

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.