California Passes Controversial Age Verification Bill Drafted by British Baroness

California Passes Controversial Age Verification Bill Drafted by British Baroness

SACRAMENTO — The California legislature on Tuesday passed a highly controversial bill mandating sweeping yet vague age verification measures for any web site “likely to be accessed by children,” now waiting to be signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom.

AB 2273, also called the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, was drafted and lobbied for by British noblewoman, philanthropist and filmmaker Beeban Kidron. 

If signed into law, the bill would require websites — including all websites containing adult content accessible in California — to determine the age of all users with “a reasonable level of certainty.”

The legislation further mandates that websites and platforms must overhaul privacy and safety standards based on the age verification requirement.

Ostensibly aimed at “making online platforms safer for children,” the bill requires “web services ‘likely to be accessed by children’ to conduct a survey assessing the potential risks for users under 18,” tech news site The Verge reported.

“Among many other measures, the sites must limit using personal information from minors and avoid collecting geolocation data unless ‘strictly necessary,’” the report continued. “It similarly restricts using ‘dark patterns,’ a general term for manipulative design features that isn’t defined in the text.”

A British Baroness With Hollywood Ties

The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act was patterned after the U.K.’s “Children’s Code,” a set of regulatory standards devised by a British aristocrat with California and Hollywood ties, the Baroness Beeban Kidron.

Kidron funds a nonprofit called the 5Rights Foundation, which backed the California bill. One of its goals is to expand the scope of the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and change the definition of “child,” for online purposes, from anyone under 13 to anyone under 18.

The push for AB 2273 comes in the wake of a media panic campaign spreading the notion that “Instagram and other services ‘hook’ children with addictive features and can make them vulnerable to exploitation or bullying, among other harms,” The Verge reported.

Baroness Beeban Kidron is a 62-year-old former photographer, film producer and director, philanthropist and self-appointed “advocate for children's rights in the digital world.” She has founded and chairs charities the 5Rights Foundation and Into Film.

Her U.K. feature films include “Vroom,” “Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit” and “Antonia and Jane.” In 1992 she moved to the U.S., where she worked with Miramax Pictures’ Harvey Weinstein. She directed “Used People,” the sex work documentary “Hookers, Hustlers, Pimps and Their Johns,” “Shades of Fear,” “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar” and romantic comedy sequel “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” starring Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant.

In 2012, Queen Elizabeth made Kidron a Baroness and she was introduced in the House of Lords. She was appointed on the recommendation of the House of Lords Appointments Commission and is an unelected “life peer,” legislating in the U.K. as a member of the House of Lords Democracy and Digital Technologies Committee.

Kidron spoke at length to The Guardian in 2021 about what she sees as her crusade for “children’s rights” online, which she took up immediately after being elevated as a noblewoman by the Queen.

“When she first began talking to her peers in the House of Lords about the rights of children on the internet, Baroness Kidron says she looked like ‘a naysayer,’ like someone who was ‘trying to talk about wooden toys’ or, in her husband’s words, like ‘one middle-aged woman against Silicon Valley,’” The Guardian gushed. “It was 2012 and the film-maker and recently appointed life peer was working on her documentary ‘InRealLife,’ spending ‘hundreds of hours in the bedrooms of children’ to discover how the internet affects young lives. What she saw disturbed her.”

“I did what they were doing — gaming, falling in love, watching pornography, going to meet-ups, making music — you name it, it happened,” Kidron told The Guardian. “Digital services and products were treating them as if they were equal,” she said. “The outcome of treating everyone equally is you treat a kid like an adult.”

Digital Rights and Privacy Groups Sound the Alarm

The Baroness’ successful interventions in U.K. and now California online policy, however, have raised the alarm for privacy, civil liberty and digital rights activists.

In a series of articles, Mike Masnick of tech news site Tech Dirt has been highlighting the dangers of Kidron’s crusade and of the strict but vague measures in AB 2273, which she helped draft.

Calling the situation “incredibly dangerous,” Masnick warned that the bill “is not just extremely problematic, but at the same time it’s also impossible to comply with. I hope Governor Newsom will veto it, but it seems unlikely.”

Masnick quoted Section 230 and digital rights expert Eric Goldman, an outspoken academic, who provided the following breakdown of what he characterizes as the bill's censorship-happy, privacy-busting overreach:

  • "First, the bill pretextually claims to protect children, but it will change the Internet for EVERYONE. In order to determine who is a child, websites and apps will have to authenticate the age of ALL consumers before they can use the service. NO ONE WANTS THIS. It will erect barriers to roaming around the Internet. Bye bye casual browsing. To do the authentication, businesses will be forced to collect personal information they don’t want to collect and consumers don’t want to give, and that data collection creates extra privacy and security risks for everyone. Furthermore, age authentication usually also requires identity authentication, and that will end anonymous/unattributed online activity.
  • Second, even if businesses treated all consumers (i.e., adults) to the heightened obligations required for children, businesses still could not comply with this bill. That’s because this bill is based on the U.K. Age-Appropriate Design Code. European laws are often aspirational and standards-based (instead of rule-based), because European regulators and regulated businesses engage in dialogues, and the regulators reward good tries, even if they aren’t successful. We don’t do “A-for-Effort” laws in the U.S., and generally we rely on rules, not standards, to provide certainty to businesses and reduce regulatory overreach and censorship.
  • Third, this bill reaches topics well beyond children’s privacy. Instead, the bill repeatedly implicates general consumer protection concerns and, most troublingly, content moderation topics. This turns the bill into a trojan horse for comprehensive regulation of Internet services and would turn the privacy-centric California Privacy Protection Agency/CPPA) into the general purpose Internet regulator.
  • So the big takeaway: this bill’s protect-the-children framing is designed to mislead everyone about the bill’s scope. The bill will dramatically degrade the Internet experience for everyone and will empower a new censorship-focused regulator who has no interest or expertise in balancing complex and competing interests."

“It is astounding to me that the legislature appears to have just wholly ignored all of Goldman’s clearly laid out and explained problems with the bill,” Masnick commented.

Both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and tech industry trade group NetChoice have questioned the constitutionality of the bill.

“At this stage, we’re focused on Governor Newsom vetoing this dangerous legislation. When it comes to what happens if he doesn’t, we have nothing to say about that at this point,” NetChoice spokesperson Krista Chavez told The Verge.

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