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Maryland can lead the way in protecting kids online

The head of the Family Online Safety Institute addresses the organization’s support of comprehensive children’s online safety legislation, with a focus on recent Maryland bills, in this op-ed.

The Maryland State House. (Photo by Flickr user F E W, used via a Creative Commons license)
This is a guest post by Stephen Balkam, founder and CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute. Balkam’s organization is an international nonprofit whose stated mission is “to make the online world safer for kids and families.”

Policymakers have made online safety a bipartisan priority and are racing to create new regulations that protect their citizens. Over the past few years, dozens of bills have advanced through state legislatures that seek to increase online safety. These include the establishment of data privacy rights, new requirements for online content moderation, age restrictions for accessing social media and age-appropriate design codes. 

The Family Online Safety Institute (FOSI) recently hosted our first state capital briefing in Annapolis and convened a variety of experts to discuss Maryland’s online safety policy work — particularly highlighting the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act. 

Maryland’s General Assembly took action during the 2023 legislative session when representatives introduced and advanced the Maryland Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (also known as the Kids Code) and the Social Media Regulation and Safety for Children bill. The Kids Code was modeled after California’s act that became law last year and the UK’s Age Appropriate Design Code. The Social Media Regulation and Safety for Children bill would require platforms to delete all data on children under 13 or face a fine. While the Kids Code passed the House of Delegates, neither bill became law during this session. 

Maryland policymakers have taken a thoughtful approach to drafting the Kids Code thanks to the direction of Delegates Jared Solomon and C.T. Wilson, the lead sponsors of the bill, who developed it with nuance and understanding of these critical issues. FOSI also commends the openness of the process, including welcoming feedback from researchers, stakeholders and industry. 

Maryland’s design code shares roots with California’s and the UK’s codes, but has some differences. In the recent panel hosted by FOSI, Del. Solomon argued that a design code is the best middle ground, in that broad bans are unworkable for both families and industry. His approach would be effective in that it would be easier to comply with and enforce. The Kids Code would require online platforms to set strong privacy settings by default, limit the collection and selling of kids’ personal information and insist that companies consider the youngest users of products and services from the very beginning of design and development. Importantly, the bill focuses not on content but on data management practices and harms analyses. It also contains a 90-day right to cure, meaning platforms have three months to fix a violation before they can be sued. This provision is meant to actually resolve online safety concerns instead of immediately fining companies.

However, there are still areas of concern and room for improvement. California’s and the UK’s design codes are both based in privacy law — something that neither Maryland nor the United States has. A comprehensive data privacy law, which Congress has been working on for decades, would provide important protections for Marylanders and help resolve some of the concerns about the Kids Code’s age assurance aspects. If there were collection, storage and use requirements, people would feel more comfortable giving their personal information to companies in exchange for safer online experiences, knowing that their data would not be misused. 

A comprehensive data privacy law, which Congress has been working on for decades, would provide important protections for Marylanders.Stephen Balkam FOSI

Questions also remain about the practice and accuracy of age verification methods that would be used to create age-appropriate online spaces. FOSI recommends a risk-based and proportional approach to age assurance, with higher levels of certainty needed for higher-risk content and activities, as well as that policymakers should not be overly prescriptive in age assurance regulation. 

The health and research community weighed in with similar nuance and recommendations. The American Psychological Association’s 2023 guidance on adolescence and social media use, as well as the Surgeon General’s work in this space, show the importance of improving online experiences for people of all ages — especially for youth. This timely work emphasizes the required thoughtfulness in this space, that people are complex and there is no one size fits all recommendation that works well for everyone. 

Other states have considered mandatory media literacy in state curricula, the power of building resilience in young people and the importance of continued research into both the harms and benefits of adolescents spending time online. Maryland legislators should continue to learn from the successes — and shortcomings — of online safety policies in other states. 

Children and their families deserve a thoughtful, nuanced approach to online safety products and policies. As online safety legislation remains a priority in state legislatures, FOSI will continue our state briefing series with more events to come. 

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