Welcome to The Technology 202! Judges, do us all a favor and err on the side of unsealing. Send tips to: email@example.com.
Below: A judge is said to have shot down the FTC’s Meta-VR suit, and the agency dings a drug discount app for leaking data. First:
The push gained traction after the U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy told CNN on Sunday that he believes 13 is “too early” for kids to be joining apps like Instagram and TikTok, which he said can create a “distorted environment” that “often does a disservice” to kids.
Since then, other officials including Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and the Federal Trade Commission’s Alvaro Bedoya have either voiced support or shared the remarks on Twitter. Jim Steyer, a prominent children’s safety advocate, called the comments “a huge deal.”
“This is exactly the kind of leadership we need from our Federal government when it comes to educating the public about technology’s impact on society,” Steyer, whose advocacy group Common Sense Media has close ties to the White House, said in an emailed statement.
Now the movement is fueling legislation on Capitol Hill: A House Republican on Thursday is introducing a bill to ban kids and teens under 16 from using social media.
The bill represents one of the most stringent efforts yet to keep kids off major platforms, going far beyond more narrow bipartisan proposals to set up guardrails for kids online.
The measure, led by Rep. Chris Stewart (R-Utah), would require companies to verify users’ ages and allow parents to sue them if they fail to keep those under 16 off their sites. It would also empower federal and state agencies to enforce the standards.
The proposal sets a high bar: While lawmakers have introduced bills to expand restrictions on practices like targeting ads to users up to 18, few have called for outright bans.
Stewart likened the effect social media can have on children and teens to that of drugs, a refrain that’s becoming increasingly common in Washington.
“We protect our children from drinking, from smoking, from driving. They can’t drive when they’re 12,” he said in an interview. “We should protect them from the impacts of social media.”
Many social media platforms, including TikTok and Twitter, already prohibit users under 13 from joining, but some such as YouTube offer a separate service designed for kids, while others like Instagram have mulled launching their own.
Those plans have faced intense scrutiny from children’s safety advocates and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who have said they don’t trust the companies to safeguard their children.
Stewart’s proposal would open companies up to liability if they fail to adequately vet users’ ages and likely pose significant compliance challenges for companies, who have poured major funds into developing verification tools they acknowledge can fall short.
Many kids and teens don’t have identification, while others find workarounds to join platforms. In turn, a number of platforms have resorted to asking users to provide their birthdays.
Tech industry leaders have urged lawmakers to help those efforts by crafting legislation to set up standards or best practices for age verification. Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of U.S. public policy, told Senate lawmakers at a hearing in 2021 that any effort to update children’s privacy protections should include “a better way to verify age across the internet.”
NetChoice, a trade group representing social networks including TikTok and Twitter, pushed back on the surgeon general’s comment that 13 is “too early” for kids to be on social media, arguing such decisions should be left to parents.
“Parents, not the government, not Silicon Valley, know what is best for their families,” said Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel. “Rather than doomsaying or trying to get between parents and their families, the government should provide tools and education on how best to use this new technology, not demonize it.”
Industry and human rights groups alike have also cautioned that cutting kids and teens off from social media could backfire by removing access to positive digital resources.
“For many kids, especially LGBTQ young people who may have unsupportive parents or live in a conservative area, the internet and social media are a lifeline,” said Evan Greer, director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future. “There are very real concerns about the ways that Big Tech companies’ business practices harm kids, but we need better solutions than just cutting kids off from online community and educational resources.”
Our top tabs
Judge set to reject FTC’s bid to block Meta’s VR deal
A federal judge in California greenlit a deal by Facebook’s parent company Meta to buy virtual reality company Within Unlimited, my colleagues Naomi Nix and Cat Zakrzewski report. The ruling deals “a blow to Democrats’ efforts to dismantle the power of Silicon Valley tech companies,” according to the report.
But in a potential silver lining for antitrust advocates, “the order did affirm some of the arguments that the FTC made in its case, including that acquisitions of nascent companies can hurt competition and that companies not currently in a marketplace can still have influence over the marketplace.”
The decision could significantly shape how the agency approaches challenges in emerging digital markets moving forward. Bloomberg News first reported the judge’s ruling.
GoodRx leaked user health data to Facebook and Google, FTC says
The Federal Trade Commission on Wednesday imposed a fine of $1.5 million on GoodRx, a drug discount app, for leaking millions of users’ sensitive health information to companies like Facebook and Google without consent, Natasha Singer reports for the New York Times.
In its complaint, the FTC said GoodRx’s use of tracking tools and other information-sharing practices to identify users’ social media accounts for targeted medical ad purposes went against a federal regulation that requires health apps to notify consumers of cybersecurity breaches and the unauthorized disclosure of their data to a third party.
The app, which is used to find lower prices on prescriptions like antidepressants, HIV medications and treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, said it disagreed with the regulator’s accusations dating back to 2017 but agreed to settle the case to avoid litigation.
If the settlement is approved by a judge, GoodRx would be permanently prohibited from disclosing users' health details for advertising purposes. This case marks the first time that the commission has deployed its Health Notification Rule. It comes as the FTC is cracking down on health privacy and security, especially in states that have moved to ban or restrict access to abortions.
Amazon faces three fresh safety citations for warehouse violations
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced citations on Wednesday against Amazon after conducting inspections at three of its warehouses in Colorado, Idaho and New York, the Wall Street Journal’s Sebastian Herrera reports.
“The agency said it found Amazon exposed workers to a high risk of injuries and muscle-related disorders at the facilities due to the fast pace at which workers must handle packages and long hours required to complete tasks,” according to the report.
“Amazon’s operating methods are creating hazardous work conditions and processes, leading to serious worker injuries,” Doug Parker, assistant secretary for occupational safety and health, said in a written statement.
Kelly Nantel, an Amazon spokeswoman, said in a written statement to the Wall Street Journal that the company takes the safety and health of its employees seriously and doesn’t believe the government’s allegations reflect the reality of safety at Amazon sites. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Inside the industry
Before you log off
January 30, 2023
That’s all for today — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email.