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Senate Bill Would Redesign Video Sharing Services

· August 21, 2019

In a move that could affect Internet video creators, in particular family and teenage creators, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) introduced S.1916 (“Protecting Children from Online Predators Act of 2019”) earlier this summer.  Hawley’s bill nominally responds to a media report that child predators have watched videos on online services, but it does so in a surprisingly heavy-handed manner: by banning the recommendation of user videos containing individuals under 18. 

Rather than targeting the bad actors or criminals reportedly using these digital services, the bill goes much further.  S.1916 imposes civil and criminal penalties on the employees of a company that recommends videos that it knows “or should have known” contain persons under 18.  Only videos “created by a professional production company, such as any video that was aired on broadcast or cable television” would be clearly permitted in recommendations.  Because no system can perfectly determine whether someone in a user’s video is under 18, video websites and apps may be compelled to limit a broad swath of videos from prominence.  After all, if there are federal criminal consequences to wrongly guessing the age of an individual in a user-submitted video, services will undoubtedly take a conservative approach.

For traditional entertainment companies that are exempted by the bill, this may not matter.  But for the new economy of content creators that thrives on Internet services, this bill could have a significant, negative impact.  In particular, it could imperil family creators like Art for Kids Hub, educational content like A Kid Explains History and Crash Course Kids, or family-oriented content like Mother Goose Club.  It may also spell the end of an era for teen creators like the many emerging TikTok stars, including the service’s most popular user (as of this month), 17-year-old Loren Gray.  Since Justin Bieber gained fame through a video posted of him as a kid singing at school over a decade ago, a generation of social media stars and young celebrities have been discovered on social media, but they could be the last.  As the founder of a site for young social media stars recently told the Atlantic, “[Teenagers today], they live on these platforms… TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram, it’s like their ABC, CBS, and MTV.”  

Moreover, the Hawley bill would impact ordinary users who want to share with a broad audience.  Everything from Little League baseball games to high school graduations, even the famous “baby dances to Prince” video that DisCo previously covered when it was embroiled in a copyright dispute, is at risk of being relegated to government-mandated backwaters.  By impeding access to this content, the bill would affect viewers of all stripes.

Sen. Hawley’s bill is one of several consecutive blunderbuss proposals aimed at tech-specific concerns.  S.1916 came a day after his introduction of S.1914 (“Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act”), a much-maligned bill that would remove “Good Samaritan” protections for online services that encourage the removal of inappropriate content, and was followed by another problematic bill a month later, S.2314 (“Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act”).  While much has been written about the flaws of these other two bills, S.1914 [1] [2] [3] and S.2314 [1] [2] [3], Hawley’s prohibition on recommending video seems to have received less attention — outside of the dubious distinction of making Reason’s list of “6 Terrible New Tech Bills in Congress.”

The bill has not yet gained any cosponsors.

Innovation

New technologies are constantly emerging that promise to change our lives for the better. These disruptive technologies give us an increase in choice, make technologies more accessible, make things more affordable, and give consumers a voice. And the pace of innovation has only quickened in recent years, as the Internet has enabled a wave of new, inter-connected devices that have benefited consumers around the world, seemingly in all aspects of their lives. Preserving an innovation-friendly market is, therefore, tantamount not only to businesses but society at large.