The Minnesota Legislature can protect kids from internet surveillance and advertising

Lawmakers should pass Age Appropriate Design Code, which recently became law in California.

April 21, 2023 6:00 am

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Last year, my in-laws received an alert on the Amazon Alexa device in the kitchen of their St. Cloud home. The speaker’s LED light flashed, and then my father-in-law heard the voice of my then 4-year old nephew, 45 minutes away in Maple Grove. My nephew had asked the Alexa in his room to play a song. Alexa misunderstood him, and instead the device chose to call his grandfather — well after bedtime.

Thankfully, it was grandpa on the other end of the line. But this wasn’t a fluke occurrence: It’s an example of technology that’s working by design to appeal to a child, be easy to use by a child, leverage the data the child generates, and be used as often as possible with as few limitations as possible.

Amazon and other tech companies have long designed and marketed their products in a way that ensures they will end up in the hands of kids, for the same reason Camel cigarettes chose a cartoon mascot and McDonald’s advertises toys in Happy Meals. It’s usually easy to tell when a physical product like Alexa has been designed to appeal to children, but when online platforms make deliberate design choices for this purpose, these choices are invisible — carelessly at best, and intentionally at worst.

Seventy-five percent of the top social media platforms use Al to recommend children’s profiles to strangers. Out of 135 children’s apps, 95% contain at least one type of advertising displayed through manipulative and disruptive methods. And 60% of school-based apps share kids’ data with third parties.

Until California passed the Age Appropriate Design Code last year, America’s children have had few protections from these practices. Minnesota has an opportunity to join California, but today tech companies are bullying our state legislators into stopping this bill from becoming law.

The Age Appropriate Design Code compels tech companies to consider the privacy and protection of children in the design of any digital product or service that children are likely to access. Under the AADC, these products must be designed with children’s well-being in mind. The law also requires high privacy settings for kids by default, rather than forcing families to navigate complex menus of options that frequently change. Tech companies have already instituted changes as a result of the California law: Meta, for example, has introduced enhanced privacy settings enabled by default when minors join Facebook.

I used to work for Amazon — I was on the company’s public policy team when Alexa was first rolled out to the public in 2015 — and I was in the room when the company made decisions about how to respond to regulations that would apply to Alexa and protect children and privacy. Their practices have not changed since.

From my experience, I can tell you that the lobbying we’re seeing against the AADC in Minnesota is right out of Big Tech’s playbook. Currently, industry lobbyists are stoking fear about the constitutionality of the proposed law — in fact, NetChoice, a front for tech giants like Amazon, Google, and Meta, is now challenging the California AADC in court.

With armies of high-paid lawyers at the companies’ disposal and few scruples, the tech industry has leaned on these constitutionality arguments in their Minnesota lobbying. And without the  resources to analyze these claims for themselves, it’s natural for lawmakers to take the companies’ word for it. Tech companies know this and exploit it — but Minnesota’s leaders don’t have to fall for it.

These companies don’t start constitutional litigation or conduct secret state house pressure campaigns lightly. Indeed, for their reputations’ sake, they hope it remains in the shadows. Yet the very fact that NetChoice filed the lawsuit means that these companies believe the legislation will be effective at keeping them from profiting from our kids’ attention and data — which is all the more reason for Minnesota to support it.

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Casey Mock
Casey Mock

Casey Mock is a resident of Seward in Minneapolis and a former member of the Amazon public policy team.