TikTok’s in Time Out: Why North Carolina Should Enact Child Privacy Laws Similar to California’s “Age-Appropriate Design Code Act”

September 26, 2022

On September 15th, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed two bills into law. The bills, which are aimed to protect children’s privacy, are “first-of-their-kind.” However, they come at a time when children’s privacy is beginning to take the forefront in legislature’s minds. 

For example, at a talk given at the National Advertising Division Conference last week, Alvaro Bedoya, Commissioner of the Federal Trade Commission, mentioned his plans for child privacy, referring to privacy rights as “a matter of basic human fairness.” Meta was recently fined $400 million for its mistreatment of children’s privacy in the U.K.

California’s new child privacy laws, dubbed the “California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act,” present an ambitious but perfectly reasonable solution to this problem. It will mandate that social media outlets such as Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok create specific guidelines for data collected from users under 18-years-old. It also requires these platforms to assess their own algorithms for potential predatory practices. It even goes so far as to limit push notifications late at night for these vulnerable users. The bills will affect all tech companies that do business in California, not just those headquartered in the state.

As the focus of legislatures worldwide shifts to child privacy, North Carolina has an opportunity to adopt laws similar to California’s. With the addition of Apple’s $1 billion campus in Raleigh, and more tech companies like Meta and Amazon looking to expand in the area, the Research Triangle Park has reasserted its role as a major tech hub. North Carolina’s position as a major player in the tech industry also means that there has never been a better time for N.C. to lead by example and protect children’s privacy.

North Carolina’s position as a major player in the tech industry also means that there has never been a better time for N.C. to lead by example and protect children’s privacy.

Currently in N.C., children’s privacy on State websites is governed by the Children’s Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA). However, this protection is too weak. For example, the Act only applies to children under the age of 13, leaving out teenagers who are extremely susceptible to predatory online practices. Moreover, parents and guardians are permitted to give consent that lets websites collect, use, and disclose personal information from children ages 13 and younger. Finally, COPPA only protects children on State authorized websites; parents are encouraged to stay informed on their children’s favorite social media’s privacy policies. There are no general privacy acts or constitutional rights protecting privacy in N.C. for any citizens.

To make matters worse, COPPA has not been updated since 2013, an eternity in the world of social media. 

Those opposed to the California bills argue that they present a major blow to big tech companies and may “stifle innovation and competition.” Others still argue that it would unduly harm companies that are trying to reach young people in good faith, such as Barnes & Noble marketing books to teenagers.  Undoubtedly, there would be similar concerns from the legislature if a bill like these were proposed in N.C. In particular, some might argue that the strict laws would hinder further tech growth in the state. However, this argument would be unfounded.

For one, as mentioned previously, N.C. already has a strong foothold in the tech market. While it is true that tech development might take a hit, that economic interest is easily outweighed by the seriousness of protecting vulnerable children from predatory data collection practices. Furthermore, if California, a long-standing leader in the tech industry and home to Silicon Valley, values the protection of children’s privacy over tech giants like Meta, why should N.C. treat this issue any differently?

Second, as Newsom himself said, because the bills apply to all sites used in California (not just the ones based in-state), the California laws will have a “trickle-down effect” across state lines. If sites are already having to adjust their privacy practices for children in one state, it might as well take effect in others. 

Finally, as social media apps like TikTok continue to rise in popularity, the safety of children drawn to these apps only becomes more pressing. In other words, this is not a problem that’s going away on its own. Lawmakers must be proactive in protecting children on these sites now. 

Catherine Ransom

Catherine Ransom attended UNC-CH, studying both English and Advertising and Public Relations. Her professional interests include advertising and consumer protection. Outside of school, Catherine enjoys yoga and watching sports.