After Receiving an “F” State Lawmakers Spotlight Children’s Online Privacy

Children’s online data could have an extra layer of protection under bills that unanimously advanced from both chambers of the statehouse earlier this month.

Del. Michelle Maldonado, D-Manassas, sponsored House Bill 707, which amends Virginia’s Consumer Data Protection Act to prevent the data of children under 13 from being processed or sold. Such data collection is often used for targeted advertisements and geolocation.

A data collector must indicate if a known child’s data is necessary to collect, and obtain parental consent to do so. Approximately 97% of juveniles ages 3-18 had access to the internet at home in 2021, according to census data.

Lawmakers worked on the legislation over the summer to better align the state’s privacy standards with federal standards, according to the Labor and Commerce Committee chair. There is a federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule with these requirements on data collection for children age 13 and under.

Maldonado did not respond to an email request for an interview.

The bill passed unanimously from the House, and heads to the Senate where similar proposals passed that amend the state’s data law in regards to children.

Sen. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, introduced Senate Bill 361, which mirrors HB 707 but would have expanded the definition of a minor to those under age 18. The bill was amended to strike that language and the substitute passed unanimously.

VanValkenburg did not respond to email requests for an interview.

Another bill by VanValkenburg would prevent social media companies, such as TikTok, from delivering “addictive feeds” to minors.

An addictive feed is essentially an algorithm at work, delivering and prioritizing media content in a way that stimulates a pattern of use. That bill heads to the House now after passing with unanimous support.

Virginia was the second state to adopt a law that protected consumer data. The law was passed in 2021 and became a blueprint for other state legislatures in the absence of any federal standard, according to a recently published report by the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC.

The center is a 30-year-old research organization focused on privacy protection and technology.

Virginia received an F grade, or an 11 out of 100, for its Consumer Data Protection Act, according to EPIC’s report released in early February. State consumers can only opt out of personal data collection and have such data deleted by contacting the data company, something EPIC said does not truly protect consumers.

The state’s original consumer data bill was drafted by Amazon lobbyists, who have influenced privacy acts across the nation, according to the EPIC report and Reuter’s investigation.

There was opposition to the bill in 2021 because the consumer was not allowed the right to sue a data controller for misuse of data, according to a previous Capital News Service report. Instead, the attorney general’s office handles enforcement.

A better data privacy act would not allow the data controllers to determine what personal information is collected, according to EPIC. As it stands now, data controllers can collect whatever they define as “relevant” or “reasonably necessary,” as long as it is disclosed.

There is growing public interest in how user data is collected on the internet. A strong majority of Americans, at 81% of those surveyed, “are concerned about how companies use the data they collect,” according to Pew Research Center.

As state lawmakers grappled with the issue of children’s data protection, so did Congress. The world’s top social media CEOs, including TikTok’s Shou Chew and Meta’s Mark Zuckerberg, were questioned a few weeks ago at an “intense” Senate hearing on the topics of online child exploitation and cyber bullying.

Zuckerberg directly addressed the families in attendance at the hearing. He apologized for the suffering children have faced on Meta’s platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.

Tina Manglicmot is the executive director of CodeVA, a nonprofit organization that helps get kids engaged with computer science. She emphasized the importance of legislation to protect the information of young children who interact with the digital world, and don’t always get to opt out of use.

“Safety in school is huge right? It’s like gun safety, safety against violence, but this is just as important,” Manglicmot said. “It’s wonderful to see that our legislators are recognizing the importance of this and really elevating it.”

Manglicmot also explained state K-12 curriculums already have technology integration standards to help educate students on why protecting their personal information online is important.

The bills now cross over to the opposite chamber, where they will be discussed and voted on before potentially becoming a state law.

By Sam Bradley / Capital News Service

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