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Meta, Amazon-funded groups lobbying to kill state kids safety bills | #childsafety | #kids | #chldern | #parents | #schoolsafey | #hacking | #aihp

At a March meeting in Annapolis, Md., that state lawmakers held to discuss proposals for new safety and privacy protections for children online, one local resident made a personal plea urging officials to reject the measure.

“I’m going to talk to you as a lifelong Maryland resident, parent, [husband] of a child therapist,” Carl Szabo told the Maryland Senate Finance Committee, according to footage of the proceedings. “Typically I’m a pretty cool customer, but this bill, I’m really nervous, because this comes into effect, this will really harm my family. This will really harm my kids’ ability to be online.”

What Szabo didn’t initially disclose in his two-minute testimony to the panel: He is vice president and general counsel for NetChoice, a tech trade association that receives funding from tech giants including Amazon, Google and Facebook parent company Meta. NetChoice has vocally opposed the measure and already sued to block a similar law in California.

The session was one of dozens happening around the country this year as policymakers and consumer advocacy groups mount a sprawling push for new safeguards for children online, spurring legislation to tackle a recent groundswell of concerns that digital platforms may worsen mental health issues for young users.

Federal efforts to pass children’s online safety protections have languished amid disagreements between House and Senate leaders about which proposals to rally around. State officials have rushed to fill the void with a wave of their own bills, including proposals in Maryland and half a dozen other states requiring tech companies to vet their products for risks to children before rolling them out.

But the push has faced broad opposition from tech trade groups representing some of the United States’ biggest digital platforms, who have blitzed statehouses around the country in an effort to stymie the bills, even as many of their member or partner companies including Amazon remain largely mum. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Tech groups including NetChoice, CCIA and the Chamber of Progress have fired off letters warning about the potentially catastrophic impact of the bills on user privacy and free speech online, deployed lobbyists to meet with key state officials and sent their leaders to testify in opposition to the efforts in Maryland, Minnesota and Nevada, among other states — part of a widespread campaign to neutralize the budding regulatory push.

Supporters of the proposed legislation, which they say is necessary to prevent children from being exposed to addictive social media features and other harmful designs, say the tech groups’ lobbying has at times relied on misleading or deceptive tactics aimed at stoking confusion about what the proposals do.

After Szabo’s remarks to the Maryland state lawmakers, one of them pressed Szabo to identify himself. “I was offended that he would come in and, quite frankly, misrepresent his interest in this issue,” Maryland state Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D) said in an interview recalling the exchange.

Szabo told The Post in an interview that his lack of disclosure was a “simple mistake” and that his intent was not to deceive the policymakers.

“I did testify quite accurately that I was there as a parent first, as a Maryland resident first,” he said. “The fact that I work for NetChoice doesn’t dismiss anything I said.”

The uptick in activity is a harbinger of how states have become a new lobbying battleground for Silicon Valley, after lawmakers in Washington have passed no new comprehensive laws regulating the tech industry despite years of debate. Senate lawmakers this week reintroduced a slate of bills aimed at boosting privacy and safety protections for children, including a bill requiring that companies vet and address potential risks to children in their products. But the measures have faced major political head winds in the House, clouding their path to passage and shifting attention back to the states.

Washington lawmakers have become more aware of tech giants’ lobbying strategies and more skeptical of groups that receive funding from Meta, Amazon and other companies, said Katie Paul, the director of the Tech Transparency Project, which tracks large tech companies’ lobbying efforts and compiled a report on tech groups’ lobbying against the children’s safety legislation. But state lawmakers are an “easy target” because they do not have as much experience or depth of knowledge about the industry apparatus, she said.

By turning to industry groups, tech companies are able to push their interests in state houses while distancing themselves from the bad optics of fighting legislation intended to keep children safe online.

“It removes the Big Tech companies one degree at least,” Paul said. “That simple step back can be all that’s needed for Big Tech companies to absolve themselves from looking like they’re pushing this issue.”

Left-leaning trade group Chamber of Progress urged lawmakers in Minnesota to reject their version of the bill, testifying in March that it would “undermine its goals by sacrificing user privacy” and “jeopardizing many of the same tools and resources already available to children.” Fellow tech trade association CCIA said in comments to lawmakers in New Mexico that their measures “may raise constitutional concerns, conflicts with federal law” and could hinder industry efforts to remove “inappropriate or dangerous content.” In its lawsuit against the California law, NetChoice also argued that the legislation would force companies to “serve as roving censors of speech on the internet.” All three receive funding from tech giants including Meta, Facebook and Google.

Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said such bills could create new legal risks for companies already trying to make their products safer for children. CCIA state policy director Khara Boender warned that some of the language under consideration could result in companies taking privacy invasive steps like collecting government-issued IDs or geolocation data to verify users’ ages and whether they’re located in a state with design restrictions.

Some digital rights groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation have echoed those concerns. The group wrote last year that it has “deep concerns” that the California law would “prompt companies to require all users to verify their ages to access online services” and impose vague requirements that companies protect the “best interests of the children.”

Kramer, whose bill failed to make it out of the Maryland legislature this year, said the lobbying campaign by NetChoice and other trade groups has been “very effective” in grinding down their efforts and called it the main reason their proposal did not advance. Industry groups have racked up wins in other states like New Mexico, where the legislative session wrapped for the year before similar legislation could advance. Other state work periods like in Minnesota, where the fate of their own measures are still up in the air, are poised to end this month.

“A combination of very organized industry opposition as well as the short calendar of state legislative sessions can make it more of an uphill battle to be passing bills,” said Irene Ly, policy counsel for the children’s safety advocacy group Common Sense Media, which is backing the proposals. “They’re running out the clock.”

Szabo, the NetChoice vice president, disputed the suggestion that he’s beholden to the tech giants.

“I don’t work for Big Tech. I don’t at all,” Szabo said at the March meeting. “We are a small business … but the more important note is that I’m a father of two children and a lifelong Maryland resident, and that’s why I’m so passionate about this issue today.”

Proponents say that rather than engaging in good faith with policymakers on how to address their concerns about the proposals, styled after landmark new regulations in the United Kingdom that required companies to build safety features into their product designs, tech trade groups in the United States have largely pushed to tank the efforts by issuing dire warnings about their potential impact for users and companies.

“Their position was ‘you’re shredding the First Amendment’ and ‘you’re destroying the internet,’” said Maryland Del. Jared Solomon (D), another lead sponsor for the age-appropriate design code legislation. “There is no middle ground on that.”

Ly said that in lieu of federal action on children’s safety, states can fill in some gaps in protection. “There’s never any guarantee that these bills will pass on the federal level. And so state bills like these, like the design code, are incredibly important, because you can just protect as many kids as possible,” she said.

Companies and industry groups have at times engaged with policymakers on possible tweaks to their measures. At a Maryland Senate Finance Committee working group session last month, an official from the 5Rights Foundation, a nonprofit led by a British filmmaker that has led efforts to replicate the age appropriate design code in the United States, outlined amendments to the state’s bill that they said were crafted in consultation with Google and other industry representatives, including to refine what the bill considered to be the best interests of children.

Google public policy manager Sarah Holland said at the time that if the committee adopted the amendments proposed at the meeting, the bill would be “strong” and “workable.”

“We really think that it reflects the best of what well crafted regulation should do,” she said.

One tech company, digital gaming platform Roblox, became the first to publicly back the California law last year, as The Post reported. But others, including Amazon, have not publicly taken a stance on state efforts to expand the age appropriate design code in the United States.

After the California law passed, Meta issued a statement expressing concerns about some of its provisions but called it “an important development towards establishing” standards to protect young people online. Antigone Davis, the company’s global head of safety, said in a statement Tuesday that they will “continue evaluating proposed legislation and working with policymakers on these important issues.”

Google referred an inquiry to its representative’s comments at the Maryland working group session, where they called that bill “workable” with some changes. Amazon did not return a request for comment.

Proponents of the legislation say they have been frustrated by the conflicting messages they have gotten from tech companies and some of the groups representing them.

“These trade associations are … sort of like the height of disingenuousness,” Solomon said.

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