Kidron’s vision is that it’s up to the companies — which build, manage and profit from the platforms — to set safety guardrails. The British politician’s first goal in the U.S. was to support a national law, and in Washington, she’s rubbed shoulders with leading Republicans and Democrats for years.
In repeated trips to the Beltway, Kidron has met with Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the co-authors of the most high-profile Beltway children’s protection proposal, known as the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA.
“I think she’s been dynamite. The age verification standards in the U.K. is a model for us,” Blumenthal told POLITICO. “She has enormous influence. Her advocacy has impacted our way of thinking.”
KOSA, though, is almost certainly mothballed before next year’s elections because of the split party control in Congress. Another challenge to recreating the U.K. kids code in Congress is more technical but equally important: It’s based on that country’s comprehensive privacy regime, known as GDPR — something the U.S. still lacks.
“They already have those online privacy protections that we do not yet have,” said Blackburn, who was introduced to Kidron eight years ago and has stayed in touch ever since. She last met in February with the British politician in London and again, virtually, in March to discuss KOSA, and she continues to work with her to this day — demonstrating Kidron’s strong cross-Atlantic ties to reform kids’ safety around the globe.
Her detractors claim that California’s rules give companies too much say over how they define what’s in the best interests of children and that overly zealous efforts to verify online users’ ages will undermine the wider public’s privacy rights if everyone has to upload their ages to access online services.
Those within the tech sector also chide Kidron’s European-style paternalism over how minors should be treated when using the web. The digital world should be free for all to decide what they want to see, her critics add, not become a walled-off garden based on black-and-white definitions of what is acceptable.
“Its drafting weaknesses are concerning enough that we urge other states not to use it as a starting point for their own bills,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, in reference to California’s kids code.
The accidental purist
Kidron stumbled into the world of children’s rights more than a decade ago.
Just as smartphones became cheap enough for teenagers to buy, she walked into a room in mid-2012 — during a break from her movie projects — to find once-boisterous young people sitting around glued to constant notifications popping up on their devices.
“They were all just looking at their screens,” Kidron recounted. “I had a thought that sort of slammed into my brain: ‘Oh, this is interesting. What is it like to have that silence among kids and their attention elsewhere?’”
By 2013, that idea had morphed into InRealLife, a gritty documentary based on Kidron spending hours with teenagers, mostly in their bedrooms. She followed them on everything from online dating apps to hardcore pornography sites to mainstream social media platforms.
It was a wake-up call for Kidron in an era when tech giants were still perceived by almost all politicians as solely forces for good. Compared to today’s TikTok generation of constant barrage of smartphone notifications, the more sedate digital landscape of 2013 — one filled primarily with Facebook status updates — feels like a lifetime ago.
During the filming, the British director cut two children from the documentary because she believed their experiences online had made them too vulnerable to include in the movie. Another videogame-obsessed participant was kicked out of college soon after she finished filming. A fourth was recommended for psychological support.
What had begun as a project focused on a new digital frontier of childhood quickly shifted to a stark warning of an unregulated world controlled by tech companies.
“I became more and more convinced that, by accident, I had hit on a problem that was unseen,” she said.
In 2017, as the U.K. was overhauling its data protection rules, known as the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, Kidron noticed an obscure passage that required companies to pay extra attention to how children’s personal information was treated. Within hours, she had sketched out how that could be applied to the tidal wave of digital services increasingly targeting kids.
That kernel of an idea eventually became the 15 principles on which the U.K., and then California, rules were forged.
They include requiring companies to consider the best interests of children when designing products; setting privacy settings to the highest level for underage users, by default; and revamping Big Tech’s complex algorithms to stop the recommendation of harmful content like self-harming videos to potentially vulnerable kids.
“I’ve worked in public administration, different forms all my life, and I’ve never seen anybody who gets shit done like this,” said William Perrin, a former adviser to Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, and trustee of the Carnegie Trust U.K., a local nonprofit that campaigned for the country’s kids code.