The fallout from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s explosive testimony about social media’s threat to children before the Senate Commerce Committee last fall is coming into focus.
There’s bipartisan support in Congress to ban targeted ads aimed at kids under 16, require tech firms to establish default safety tools to protect children online and give parents more control over their children’s web surfing.
The Commerce Committee last week advanced for floor consideration two bills: It approved the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act on a voice vote and the Kids Online Safety Act by a unanimous 28-0.
Haugen had shared internal documents revealing that Facebook knows its Instagram photo-sharing platform can be addictive to teens and has likely led to increased rates of eating disorders and depression.
Facebook has been asking for years to be regulated, and the company certainly has the resources to keep up with new rules. It has also been building out parental tools and reminders that nudge teens to take a break or switch topics.
But a consensus is forming that Haugen was on to something.
“Using principles from behavioral psychology, algorithm and tech companies are finding ways to keep kids and teens engaged for longer periods,” Nusheen Ameenuddin, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Communications and Media, told POLITICO. “They are feeding them more content … based on their clicks, their preferences — all of these things that really they have no control over.”
The Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act, co-sponsored by unlikely allies Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Ed Markey (D-Mass.), is an update to the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and extends existing privacy protections for preteens to children up to age 16 and bans ads targeting them. It would also give kids and their parents the right to review and delete information that online platforms have collected about them. The bill would put the Federal Trade Commission in charge of enforcement and calls for a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the agency that would assess how well it’s ensuring child safety online.
The Kids Online Safety Act, co-sponsored by another unusual pair, Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), would require social media platforms to allow kids and their parents to opt out of content algorithms that have fed them harmful content and disable addictive product features. The bill limits collection of kids’ data, offers controls to parents and kids over their online experience and restricts who can contact a child on social media. It also calls for audits and independent research to identify potential harms.
Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, said the bill is a good jumping-off point for a larger discussion about how kids should interact with social media. “There’s emergent evidence to suggest that the longer they’re on, the more it is changing the structure and function of their brain development.”
But Congress must still agree on the details and resolve turf battles before a new law can be passed.
During the Commerce panel’s markup, the ranking Republican, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, said he prefers a bill the House Energy and Commerce Committee approved by a 53-2 vote last month that would tackle the data-privacy issue more broadly, covering adults as well as children. But that bill would preempt existing state rules, like California’s consumer privacy law, prompting opposition.
Welcome back to Future Pulse, where we explore the convergence of health care and technology. ICYMI, Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) sent a letter to the FTC asking for an investigation into Amazon’s impending deal with One Medical. He wants to know if a One Medical doctor says he’s got high blood pressure, will he have to worry about getting bombarded with ads for Whole Foods supplements? Dystopian! What do you think?
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HOUSE OK’S TELEHEALTH EXTENSION — The House voted 416-12 last week to pass a bill by Wyoming Republican Liz Cheney that would keep expanded Medicare telehealth access in place through the end of 2024.
The landslide vote was a major boon for telehealth advocates. The legislation would let Medicare as well as federally qualified health centers and rural health clinics continue to cover virtual visits from patients’ homes. It would also extend a waiver allowing patients to avoid in-person mental health visits.
The eased rules are currently set to end five months after the end of the Covid-19 public health emergency, which could come as soon as October.
Republicans upset with process: GOP lawmakers were dismayed that House leadership went around bipartisan negotiations and the committee process to put Cheney’s bill on the floor, even though most Republicans voted for the legislation.
Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) told POLITICO that the House should have passed his bill, the Telehealth Modernization Act, which would make some eased rules permanent.
What’s next: Cheney’s bill is off to the Senate, where it’s expected to have bipartisan support. Still, a busy legislative calendar lies ahead, and telehealth legislation probably won’t move until the “lame duck” session after the midterm elections, a Senate aide told POLITICO.
UNITEDHEALTH FACES OFF AGAINST DOJ — The antitrust trial challenging UnitedHealth Group’s acquisition of Change Healthcare is underway before federal district court Judge Carl Nichols in Washington, D.C.
The DOJ brought suit in February, arguing that the acquisition would give UnitedHealth insight into competitors’ operations. Change Healthcare provides technology tools to health systems and insurers that help them process claims. United argues that the DOJ’s argument rests on “speculative theories.”
The case will highlight how the Biden administration is shifting traditional thinking on antitrust to deal with technology.
At the American Bar Association’s conference on healthcare law earlier this year, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Andrew Forman of the Antitrust Division gave some insight into how he’s thinking about market power in healthcare: “The division has several competitive concerns, including the loss of head-to-head competition, exploitation of competitively sensitive information, and reduced innovation.”
The trial will likely end next week.
DATA BROKERS NOT GIVING IN TO PRESSURE — Democrats are pushing data brokers to stop gathering information on expectant parents to protect them from potential legal consequences if they seek abortions in states where the procedure is now banned, but they’ve largely struck out, POLITICO’s Alfred Ng reports.
Brokers have long sold information on pregnant people, including their trimester status and preferred birth methods. It’s valuable to companies that make and sell products new parents need.
Abortion bans that took effect after the Supreme Court turned abortion rights over to the states in June target abortion providers, but abortion rights groups argue that states could weaponize the information against people getting abortions too.
“It is shockingly irresponsible for a data broker to bury their head in the sand and pretend their business of tracking pregnancies and selling that information for profit won’t be weaponized by far-right extremists,” said Oregon’s Ron Wyden, who introduced with several other Senate Democrats in June the My Body, My Data Act to limit reproductive health data collection, in an email.
With no federal data privacy legislation telling them they must, many brokers aren’t changing their practices.
POLITICO found more than 30 listings offering data on expectant parents or selling access to them via email blasts. Most were updated after the court’s ruling.
Joe Pych, the CEO of NextMark — a directory of marketing email lists — said it wasn’t a problem to host such lists.
“As far as I know, there’s no law today that prohibits prenatal mailing lists. If that were to change and this type of data became illegal, we’d work with the providers to remove these listings,” Pych said.
FTC SUES META OVER VIRTUAL REALITY APP — The Federal Trade Commission sued last week to prevent Facebook parent company Meta from acquiring Within, the developer of a virtual reality fitness app, POLITICO’s Josh Sisco reports.
The lawsuit figures to be a thorn in the side of Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his quest to develop the metaverse. Within makes the Supernatural fitness app, which employs Meta’s virtual reality headset to help users stretch and work out.
The move is another sign of aggressive action from FTC Chair Lina Khan, who wants to expand traditional notions of antitrust law to prevent big technology companies from getting even bigger.
“The FTC’s case is based on ideology and speculation, not evidence,” Facebook spokesperson Stephen Peters said in a statement.
Cities are lobbying to host the ARPA-H headquarters. Experts don’t understand why — Lev Facher, STAT
A.I. predicts the shape of nearly every protein known to science — Cade Metz, The New York Times
Facebook slapped with another health data privacy lawsuit — Marianne Kolbasuk McGee, Healthcare Info Security