Common Sense Media celebrated a signature lobbying victory in September, this time regarding California's "online eraser" legislation, which compels websites to delete content posted by minors who would like to see it taken down. The new law, which goes into effect in January 2015, also bans targeted advertising for specific products and services when the website operator knows the visitor is a minor (presumably from IP tracking data). The laundry list of prohibited content includes permanent tattoos, spray-paint, tanning beds, and dietary supplements. Critics have been quick to point out that the legislation lacks teeth, but it may signal a new wave of online censorship--all for the sake of the children.
The movement to protect children from harmful speech is nothing new, and many of its goals are certainly noble. Common Sense Media and other similar organizations offer parents useful information, content ratings, and other tools for guiding children's media choices. Focusing on education, awareness, and choice is the right way to approach the issue. Encouraging industry leaders to adopt standards that protect young users from exposure to harmful content is another example of reasonable action. While corporate censorship, particularly by internet service providers, is certainly an issue Americans should be paying close attention to, there is also the potential for industry leaders to implement innovate solutions that allow users to choose which content they see when they log on. Most social media sites already offer features that allow users to take down content, filter results, and select privacy settings.
The "think of the children" banner has been used in the past in efforts to censor all kinds of speech, including depictions of LGBT families, historical events, recording artists, and art exhibits. The battleground then shifted from the recording studios to the digital world. In 2010, Common Sense Media spearheaded an effort to restrict the sale of "ultra-violent" video games to minors. Facing industry criticism of the proposed legislation, CEO Jim Steyer threatened: "efforts to try to muzzle our voice for millions of parents and educators will only make our support stronger for California's and other state's efforts to protect the best interests of children and families." So where comes the 2.0?
Today's "Think of the Children" activists have set their sights on privacy legislation, and those "other" states Steyer mentioned are firmly in the crosshairs. By relying on the decentralized nature of the Internet, activists aim to create a murky legal situation where a sites hosted in another state may be required to take down content at the behest of teens in California. Undoubtedly upset by the 2011 failure of Rep. Ed Markey's proposed "Do Not Track Kids Act", Common Sense media simply focused on swaying California's legislature to pass similar legislation on the state level. Steyer declared in April that the online eraser bill was "a big step forward for privacy rights, especially since California has more tech companies than any other state." By lobbying policymakers to pass legislation compelling corporate actors to take down publicly available data, nonprofit actors are overextending their reach. Don't be fooled by this most recent--and relatively harmless--piece of legislation regarding digital privacy. By repackaging what would be an unconstitutional "right to be forgotten" in the guise of protecting children, we also risk following a path towards greater digital censorship in the United States.