Bryan P. Sears//February 13, 2023
//February 13, 2023
ANNAPOLIS — Maryland lawmakers plan to lock horns with powerful social media companies as the national debate over internet safety for children moves to the state level.
Identical proposals in the House and Senate would make Maryland one of about a half dozen states to take on the issue, even as it is being debated at the federal level.
“We’re not saying these are 10 prescriptive pieces that need to be in every piece of software on every platform,” said Del. Jared Solomon, D-Montgomery and lead sponsor of the House version of the bill. “We’re saying at the end of the day it is about protecting young people, and we want you to use your best minds to figure out how to do that as opposed to playing whack-a-mole as problems are coming up.”
Under the proposal, social media companies would be required to do an assessment of how their platforms collect information on children. In addition to data collection, the report would also require them to look at other features, including autoplay of videos, rewards for time spent on the applications as well as how and when notifications are sent.
The review must also include plans to mitigate concerns about cyberbullying.
While similar measures are under consideration at the federal level, Maryland lawmakers say they are skeptical that anything will be done.
“The more states that move the ball forward with this type of legislation, the more pressure it puts on Washington and Congress to take action,” said Solomon. “We’re not here to be scared off by any lawsuits. This is underpinned in solid legal theory.”
Hearings on both House and Senate bills are scheduled for March.
This is not Maryland’s first foray into attempting to protect children online. In 2013, the General Assembly passed the anti-cyberbullying legislation known as Grace’s Law, named for 15-year old Grace McComas. The teen took her own life on Easter Sunday 2012 after being relentlessly bullied online.
That law was recently updated in 2019.
“It’s been 10 years, almost 11 years since I couldn’t protect my child,” said Christine McComas, mother of Grace McComas. “We haven’t had any new law at the federal level since before most social media existed. We have no time to waste. We have no time.”
The proposed law closely mirrors one passed in California. That law is currently being challenged in federal court by NetChoice. The trade group includes Amazon, Google, and Facebook parent company Meta.
“This proposal would expand government power over Marylanders’ online speech, under the guise of protecting children,” said Carl Szabo, NetChoice vice president and general counsel. “If passed, it will require every Maryland resident to provide our most sensitive personal information to virtually every website we visit. This bill forces websites to collect and store even more information on Maryland residents, the exact opposite of our efforts for data storage reduction and data privacy.”
Szabo hinted at constitutional challenges similar to those involving California’s law.
“By abandoning the First Amendment and forcing all websites to track and store information on both children and adults, this proposal risks closing the internet and putting the digital safety of all Americans, and especially children, in jeopardy,” he said. “Following in the footsteps of California, a few Maryland lawmakers may trample on the First Amendment to gain more control over speech online.”
Del. C.T. Wilson, D-Charles and co-sponsor of the House bill and chairman of the House Economic Matters Committee, which will hold hearings on the legislation, said that “bringing these tech companies into the solution is part of the solution.”
“We don’t claim to be subject matter experts on what they do, we just know that they can do better,” said Wilson, adding: “Sometimes you just have to remind folks what their intentions were. People get lost, and every now and again they forget.”
Social media companies would have until June 30, 2024, to complete the reports or be forced to stop allowing children to use the apps.
The law also gives the Office of the Attorney General broad ability to identify problems and file civil lawsuits against individual companies. Proposed penalties include fines of $2,500 per child for negligent actions and $7,500 per child for intentional actions.
Sen. Ben Kramer, D-Montgomery and sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said industry is in constant search of ways to get around legislation meant to protect children.
“The industry has always played whack-a-mole,” said Kramer.
“They can try to play whack-a-mole, but we are giving our attorney general in this legislation a great big hammer to smack the hell out of these moles and ensure that we are, in fact, doing everything that we can as government representatives, as elected officials to ensure the best interests of our children going forward in this new age of online exposure.”
President Joe Biden dedicated a portion of his State of the Union speech last week to highlight internet safety for children and to promote a bill that mirrors a United Kingdom law passed in 2020.i