Gavin Newsom, California’s governor, was surrounded by aides, local politicians and campaigners last September when he signed a new law for the Golden State — the first of its kind anywhere in the U.S. — to protect children from seeing posts about self-harm or from predatory digital advertisers. But one of the most important architects of the bill wasn’t in the room.
Beeban Kidron, a British baroness, watched from 5,000 miles away via Zoom, barely able to see the signing ceremony on a propped-up laptop in her North London townhouse, as proposals she dreamed up years ago became law in the U.S.
Officially, she’s Baroness Kidron, Order of the British Empire, of Angel, an upmarket and trendy neighborhood in North London favored by politicians and celebrities. The title evokes the type of pomp and ceremony — more akin to “Downton Abbey” than hard-nosed politics — at which the United Kingdom excels.
But Kidron, a film director-turned-children’s rights advocate, has used a combination of perseverance and savvy politics to become arguably the most important and effective driver of data privacy and social media rules in the United States.
“They boiled kids alive online, and everybody’s fed up,” is how Kidron put it bluntly in an interview with POLITICO when describing how tech companies had treated children for years.
Unsparing and relentlessly on message, the 62-year-old politician (her title isn’t hereditary, she was elevated to the U.K.’s House of Lords for her movie work in 2012) successfully campaigned for sweeping changes in the U.K. that forced Facebook, YouTube and TikTok to revamp how they interact with underage users.
That playbook, the U.K.’s Age Appropriate Design Code, required platforms to redesign their products with kids’ safety in mind and was copied by California’s lawmakers as they made their own plans to push back against social media’s perceived ills. Both laws also include hefty new safety protections for minors and obligations on social media giants to downplay harmful content from their feeds. California’s legislation will come into force in July 2024.
The U.S.’s 50 different state legislatures and a Congress largely unable to agree on any major new laws poses a huge challenge to would-be reformers of the tech industry. But in that void, guerrilla-style figures like Kidron can have outsized influence by working behind the scenes.
Her idea is that the onus belongs on the big tech companies, not parents and guardians of kids, to reshape their services to treat kids differently from adults using these digital products. Not everyone agrees — some conservative states are passing laws relying more on parental oversight than the corporate reforms in California’s law. And by virtue of California’s size and importance to the tech business, Sacramento’s legislation has become the country’s de facto standard.
That has made Kidron, whose film director credits include the second Bridget Jones movie, an unlikely example of how a fancy British accent, a touch of digital wonkery and an intense persistence to hold companies more accountable for how they treat children can pay off.
Now — with the U.S. still largely stuck at a national level, California girding to enforce its new rulebook and industry groups preparing to fight it — the question is where else it will work.
Research folders and projects sit on the shelves of the office of Baroness Beeban Kidron, filmmaker and digital rights advocate, in London
Research folders and projects sit on the shelves of the office of Kidron, who has become arguably the most important and effective driver of data privacy and social media rules in the U.S.
‘She has enormous influence’
During a two-hour conversation with POLITICO, Kidron tilted between optimism that the U.K. and California rules would have an oversized impact on social media and anger that tech companies were still not doing enough to protect kids online.
“The code had become a sort of torch for the fact that something can be done,” she said, fidgeting constantly, in a converted 19th-century tailor’s shop, now her production office, that butts up against her own home alongside multimillion-dollar townhouses and low-income housing.
Next to her were wall-to-wall binders that spanned her work in the U.K.’s House of Lords and her separate children’s rights campaigning group, the 5Rights Foundation, to her international advocacy, including in the U.S.
“This is a systemic problem,” she added, almost impatient about why the tech industry hadn’t moved further. “The current system allows the bad actors access to our children.”
Not everyone has welcomed an obscure British baroness entering the cutthroat world of American politics.
In December, NetChoice, an industry trade group whose members include Google and Meta, filed a lawsuit against California’s replica of the British online protections, arguing Sacramento’s rules would make social media companies “roving censors of free speech on the internet.”
This year, Kidron’s 5Rights Foundation pushed hard for other states like Maryland and Minnesota to follow the U.K.’s lead in passing their own kids-focused rulebooks. Those proposals failed because lawmakers ran out of time during legislative sessions.
Other U.S. states, including Utah and Arkansas, passed their own versions of online child protections. Those largely Republican lawmakers took a different approach, focused primarily on giving parents greater control over how their children access social media.
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?’”
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