A new bill aiming to keep kids safer online has been introduced in the New York state senate, and it could force social media companies to implement a host of security features — including bans on advertising to youngsters and on mining their data — if passed.
The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Andrew Gounardes (D-Brooklyn) on Friday, is modeled after one in California that Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law earlier this month despite searing opposition from Big Tech groups.
The Golden State’s Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, a first of its kind law in the US, requires that online platforms design their products with children in mind and put up guardrails to protect their privacy.
While similar, the New York legislation takes further steps by including a number of provisions meant to help families in the event of serious harms committed against kids online.
“We want to make the Internet safe for everybody and this is one way to do that,” Gounardes explained.
“These kids are so vulnerable, and in a time when they’re just spending so much of their life on a screen and using these new forms of communication without any oversight, any regulation… there’s an imperative to act on their behalf and in their best interests.”
Brooklyn-based victims’ rights attorney Carrie Goldberg — who specializes in digital privacy violations — helped pen the bill after realizing many of her cases involved incidents that could have been prevented if such safety measures were already in place.
“If you’re going to be in the business of targeting tech products at minors then there’s bare minimum safety requirements you’re going to have to meet,” said Goldberg, whose clients include the parents of children who died after buying fentanyl-laced pills on Snapchat.
“It’s not different than if you’re making toys or cribs or car seats,” she told The Post in a recent interview. “If you’re in the business of providing consumer products to children, then you can’t be designing products that are endangering their lives.”
A crucial aspect of New York’s bill absent in the California law is a stipulation requiring tech companies have a method for parents to notify them in case of emergencies — a sort of “911” for digital crimes in progress.
It’s a provision that would have been crucial to one Brooklyn mom, going by the name Maria, whose 11-year-old daughter was the victim of a vicious revenge porn campaign during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020.
The 33-year-old housekeeper from Guatemala frantically tried in vain to find a customer service number for Instagram after learning from her sister that nude photos and videos of her child were being plastered across the app and shared in direct-messages to more than a dozen classmates, relatives and friends.
“My first reaction was trying to stop it. Like I was panicked, but at the same time I felt this urge to stop it. But how?” Maria recalled through tears.
“There was no option for me to contact them, like a real person… I wanted to talk to a real person and let them know that this is going on… but there was nobody.”
The nightmare started after she met a 17-year-old boy online and bonded with him over their shared love of anime. Soon, he allegedly told her she was his girlfriend and coerced her into sending naked photos and videos of herself and eventually, the passwords to her accounts.
When the boy, based in Iowa, allegedly demanded 150 naked photos and Maria’s daughter refused, he locked her out and began sending her nude images to her friends from her account.
At that point, the distraught mom’s only option was to report the images to Instagram as inappropriate and hope the platform would swiftly take action, which doesn’t always work.
Maria said she also went to a local NYPD precinct, but that even though her daughter’s images were considered child pornography, she was told “there’s nothing we could do.”
“One of the officers said, ‘you should discipline your daughter,’” Maria recalled. “The police couldn’t help me so, who will?… I felt alone in the world in the middle of the pandemic.”
It would take another two and a half weeks for Instagram to take her daughter’s accounts down and that was only after a social worker connected Maria to Goldberg, who had the ability to directly contact the company, and agreed to take the case free of charge.
But the damage had already been done. While the boy is now being prosecuted criminally in Iowa, Maria said her daughter has attempted suicide numerous times and has been in and out of in-patient mental health facilities ever since the ordeal.
“Our life is not normal,” the mom said as she fought back tears. “We live in tension most of the time, because we never know when she’s gonna go into a crisis.”
Other provisions in New York’s bill are requirements that tech companies expedite warrants and subpoenas pertaining to crimes against children, and give parents or legal guardians access to their kids’ accounts if they die.
Upstate New York mom Kim Devins has been fighting to access her daughter Bianca’s social media pages since the 17-year-old was murdered in July 2019 — and images and videos of the crime went viral after killer Brandon Clark posted them on Instagram and Discord. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years to life in prison in March 2021.
More than three years later, Devins, 38, still can’t get into her daughter’s accounts, nor does she have the ability to make the pages private, control comments or block vile comments, including by so-called incels who continue to post about how the teen deserved to die and share links to the murder photos.
Instagram told Devins it could delete the accounts, which the mom didn’t want to do because the pages serve as digital online memorial spaces for loved ones to visit, or, she could set up an estate for her daughter.
“Most [deceased] children don’t need an estate, and that takes a lot of time and there’s a cost associated with that, to hire a lawyer and set up an estate,” Devins, told The Post, adding her daughter’s Instagram account went from 2,000 followers to over 166,000 after her death.
“We shouldn’t have to waste time and money setting up an estate, going to court and fighting for the right for our minor child’s accounts,” she said, “it’s something parents shouldn’t have to deal with after losing a child, it’s the most horrific thing to go through in your life.”
Tech industry groups and activists fought vehemently against the California bill, which was enacted Sept. 15. Critics said it could dramatically reshape the internet, reduce free speech and require adults to prove their age before accessing websites they may only want to visit for a few minutes, and only once.
A similar battle is now expected in New York.
When the Empire State last took on Big Tech, with a bill to criminalize revenge porn, high-powered lobbyists funded by industry groups scared lawmakers away from voting for it, causing the legislation to languish until a series of Post exposés sounded the alarm. The bill eventually passed and was signed into law by former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in July 2019.
At the time, Goldberg called the law’s enactment the end of a “six-year gladiator match.” She acquiesced Friday that Gounardes faces an uphill battle against the very same lobbyists, and the hurdle of convincing his colleagues to get on board with his bill to protect children online.
“We’re up for a fight for sure but the face of politics in New York State has changed over the last couple of years and our lawmakers are stronger than they ever have been before and they’re passing legislation that helps consumers and victims,” Goldberg said, referencing the child victims act, the adult survivors act and the extension of the statute of limitations for rape.
“We’re seeing really progressive laws that have been passed despite massive lobbying efforts,” she continued, “and I would like to think that we can withstand the pressures of tech companies.”
Gounardes, 37, is “up for the David and Goliath fight” and if California can get it done, so can New York, Goldberg said.
The state senator has yet to secure a co-sponsor in the Assembly, but when asked, said he “fully expects” to get his colleagues on board.
“I guess my answer has to be yes, right?” the lawmaker said.
“I think it’s really hard to say that the status quo is acceptable when we know that there are vulnerabilities and there are gaps in the protection of these kids,” Gounardes added. “We’re not trying to shut down social media, we’re just trying to put in place smart, thoughtful and important guardrails and I don’t see how or why people would be opposed.”