Maryland Beats Tech: The Battle Between Industry and Children’s Online Safety

How Maryland took on the tech lobby, and won.

In the ever-expanding digital landscape, ensuring the safety and well-being of children is a predominant concern. With the rise of social media platforms and the increasing integration of technology into our daily lives, the need for comprehensive regulations to protect young users has never been more urgent. With money being funneled into corporate interests, child safety online remains at risk. At the heart of this issue lie two critical elements: the need for child safety regulation and Big Tech’s lobbying groups, including NetChoice.

The emergence of child online safety regulations represents a significant step forward in addressing the unique vulnerabilities of children in the online world. Based on the United Kingdom’s Age-Appropriate Design Code, California has passed a similar regulation, the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (AB2273). Other states have followed privacy and children’s safety regulations, such as Maryland’s Online Data Privacy Act (HB0567), Maryland Kids Code (HB0603), and the Vermont Data Privacy Act (H.121). These acts aim to establish guidelines for tech companies, ensuring that their products and services respect the privacy of minors and tailor their platforms to young audiences. By prioritizing the safety and privacy of children, these regulations seek to mitigate the risks and harmful externalities associated with unrestricted access to the Internet and manipulation tactics from social media companies.

However, the road to implementing online child safety regulation is challenged by the advocates of Tech Giants, specifically the trade organization NetChoice. NetChoice’s ideology resonates with the principles of minimal government intervention and maximal individual freedom in the digital world. They argue that strict regulations infringe upon these liberties by suppressing innovation, restricting free speech, and imposing excessive restrictions on tech companies. 

Yet, beneath the illusion of freedom lies a darker reality. The unchecked escalation of online content, along with the absence of age-appropriate regulations, exposes children to vast dangers ranging from cyberbullying to inappropriate content and data exploitation. The relentless lobbying efforts of companies like Meta through NetChoice have escalated these tensions between child safety regulation and a quest for minimal government interaction in digital spaces. Their advocacy efforts emphasize free speech over government intervention in online child safety and believe that parents should be in charge of keeping their kids safe online, instead of the legislative measures. To counter these perceived “threats” to free speech, NetChoice lobbies heavily for Big Tech companies and remains a strong ally to them.

“NetChoice and its members are really serious about preserving the kind of lawlessness that has defined the internet,” said Megan Iorio, Senior Counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

The clash between online child safety regulation and NetChoice reflects a fundamental tension between societal welfare and corporate interests. While tech companies strive for unrestricted autonomy in shaping their digital ecosystems, the critical need to protect vulnerable populations, particularly children, cannot be overlooked. The absence of comprehensive regulations leaves children susceptible to manipulation and exploitation, undermining their rights to privacy and safety.

In this light, recent legislative initiatives in Maryland to bolster children’s privacy laws remain hopeful against the lobbying efforts of Big Tech and NetChoice. These measures aim to empower parents and guardians with greater control over their children’s online activities, compelling tech companies to adopt age-appropriate design principles and transparent data practices. By embedding privacy protections into the fabric of digital platforms, Maryland hopes to set a precedent for other states to follow suit in protecting the digital rights of minors. On Thursday, May 9, Maryland Governor Wes Moore signed into law the state’s Age-Appropriate Design Code Act.

The collaboration between age-appropriate design code acts and legislative efforts like those in Maryland and California signify a paradigm shift in the digital landscape, one where the interests of children are prioritized over corporate profit margins. Contrary to the narrative adopted by proponents of NetChoice, age-appropriate design regulations do not stifle innovation; rather, they encourage responsible innovation that takes into account the ethical implications of technological advancements.

Moreover, online child safety regulations catalyze a culture of accountability within the tech industry, ensuring companies act in the best interests of their most vulnerable users. By incorporating principles of user-centered design and privacy by default, tech companies can create a more inclusive and equitable digital environment that supports the healthy development of children on their platforms.

The intersection of child safety regulation and NetChoice represents a critical juncture in our ongoing mission to create a safer, more child-friendly internet. While the ideological divide between regulatory frameworks and unrestrained freedom persists, it is essential that we prioritize the well-being of children above all else. By embracing age-appropriate design principles and enacting this legislation, we can create a path toward a digital future where children can explore, learn, and thrive in a secure online environment.