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Youngkin looks to put guardrails on collection of teenagers’ online data

Gov. Glenn Youngkin signing a bill flanked by a member of his staff and several children.
Ben Paviour
VPM News
In 2022, Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed a bill to create a parental opt-out from local school mask mandates.

The governor’s proposal would require parental verification for children under the age of 18 to sign up for social media platforms or visit most websites.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin is pushing for parents to have final say in whether their 14- to 17-year-olds can sign up for social media or browse most websites that collect user data. The tech industry and some Democrats argue the changes go too far, too fast.

Virginia lawmakers approved legislation this year requiring pornography sites to verify users are over 18 before they’re allowed to see content. Youngkin amended the bill to require verification when users under 18 years old visit most websites that collect or use their personal data. It would also apply if they sign up for social media like TikTok or Instagram. Sites would require a government ID, credit card or signed consent form in order to verify a users’ age.

The rules would apply to any website that “control or process personal data” of at least 100,000 people annually, or that make at least 50% of their profits from the sale of personal data and control or process the data of at least 25,000 people annually.

Republican politicians have increasingly focused on technology companies' influence over children. Last month, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a more sweeping law that requires parental consent for people under 18 to use social media sites and blocks access to them during certain hours. GOP lawmakers in Iowa introduced legislation that would prohibit minors’ access to social media sites entirely.

Youngkin’s spokesperson, Macaulay Porter, noted that major social media platforms — including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram — already have age verification systems in place and Virginia’s law already limits data collection for users under the age of 13.

Porter said the governor “is committed to empowering parents and protecting Virginia's children from dangerous material on the internet, as well as ensuring that children's data is not sold or used for targeted advertising or profiling purposes.”

In Virginia, enforcement of Youngkin’s proposal would fall on the state attorney general, who would notify companies of violations. If they fixed the issue within 30 days, they would not be held liable.

State lawmakers will approve or reject the changes when they meet for a reconvene session Wednesday. Democrats hold a four-seat majority in the Virginia Senate, so Youngkin will need to peel away several votes from across the aisle for the proposal to pass.

Youngkin’s changes mirror language in administration-backed legislation sponsored by Sen. David Suetterlein (R–Roanoke County) and Del. Emily Brewer (R–Isle of Wight). While Brewer's bill cleared the House with the support of all but two Democrats, their counterparts in the state Senate referred both bills for further study by a legislative committee.

In an interview, Suetterlein billed the changes as a basic consumer protection. He noted Senate Democrats were willing to support age restrictions on items like alcohol and tobacco, “But when it comes to their internet privacy, they're willing to say, ‘Well, you're 14 years old, kid, good luck.’ And it's just stunning to me.”

In a January committee hearing, tech industry representatives said Suetterlein’s bill was premature, with provisions of the broader Virginia Consumer Data Protection Act going into effect Jan. 1. Margaret Durkin, Mid-Atlantic director for Technet — which represents executives of technology companies — argued it would also force consumers to hand over copies of sensitive information and doesn't properly distinguish between different aged teenagers.

“This bill doesn't account for developmental differences between, say, a 14-year-old and that 17-year-old,” Durkin told lawmakers. “And under this bill, that 17-year-old would need parental consent to stream their favorite music online.”

Sen. Scott Surovell (D–Fairfax) said that children need different protections than adults online. But he said the issue deserves more study and that Youngkin was trying to work around the legislative process.

“We typically don't make changes this big as a governor's amendment,” he said in an interview. “I have a hard time seeing this amendment getting any traction.”

Surovell said he’d received more lobbying on the bill than any other of the several dozen pieces of legislation Youngkin amended — all of which will get a final vote during the so-called reconvene session starting Wednesday.

Lawmakers will also consider whether to override any of the three vetoes Youngkin passed down.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.