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Keeping children safe in a rapidly changing digital landscape

Twenty years after starting as an intern at an organization to help create a safe media environment for children, Josh Golin is leading the group’s efforts as its executive director.  

The mission of Fairplay for Kids, formerly known as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, has stayed the same. But along the way, Golin, who took over as executive director in 2015, has seen how its target shifts.

“When I started doing this work, we were primarily focused on things like television commercials, and junk food marketing to kids and the childhood obesity epidemic,” he told The Hill in a recent interview.

Those issues are still a concern, but Golin said the rise of social media was a turning point, specifically pointing to the launch of YouTube Kids in 2015.

“That really precipitated a shift where we started looking at the design of platforms. And not just looking at the effects of the actual advertisements and marketing on children, but really looking at the entire ecosystem and how it was built for advertisers at children’s expense as kind of being the core and key issue,” Golin said.

Golin first found his way to the group after working at Miramax in the late 1990s. He said the studio was working on the film “Spy Kids” at the time and made a deal with McDonald’s for promotion.  

“That really led me to start thinking about how commercial forces in children’s lives were this enormous force that didn’t necessarily care about children’s well-being. And I have strong beliefs that the institutions and people that are the primary influences on children’s lives should actually care about their well-being,” Golin said.

He went back to school for a master’s degree in child development, joined the organization as an intern and stayed to continue the work over the next two decades.

Golin said a big milestone moment was in 2019, when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) settled with Google over illegal data collection on YouTube, triggered by a complaint the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood filed along with the Center for Digital Democracy.  

The settlement required Google and its subsidiary YouTube to pay $170 million to settle allegations of collecting personal information from children without their parents’ consent, in violation of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). In response, YouTube also published a blog post about updates to better protect data for children’s content.

“We don’t think that settlement was strong enough. It should have been for more money. There should have been different ways about the way it was implemented. But it was really important. It was the first time a major platform was forced by regulators to change how they were interacting with children,” Golin said.

That outcome led the group to change its focus on advocacy work. Before then, the group was active at the FTC mostly to garner media attention or pressure the companies to change, he said.

“We had zero faith that regulators would actually do something with the evidence that we were bringing to them. And 2019 really was an eye-opener,” he said.  

Recently, Fairplay and other advocacy groups have been advocating fiercely for Congress to pass two bills: COPPA 2.0, which would update the data privacy rules for minors, and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which would create a duty of care for social media platforms to prevent harm. KOSA would give the FTC and state attorneys general enforcement authority.  

Both bills advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee with bipartisan support in July. The bills also received bipartisan support from the committee last year but failed to make it to a full floor vote before the end of the session.  

Although they have bipartisan support, there is a coalition of LGBTQ rights groups that have raised concerns that KOSA could be weaponized by state attorneys general to censor information about LGBTQ health. 

Golin said he understands the concerns raised, but the current version of the legislation has narrowed the definition of duty of care “to such a way that there is no legal way for an attorney general to use that to censor LGBTQ content.”  

“I think that the opponents of KOSA are making a lot of assumptions and using a lot of hypotheticals and stating that as if those are 100 percent what’s going to happen. And we fundamentally disagree with those hypotheticals,” he said.  

“I would not support a bill if we believed it was going to be used in ways that was harmful to LGBTQ children,” he added.

Golin said he’s also been encouraged in the space by building momentum, especially since whistleblower Frances Haugen stepped forward two years ago with internal company documents and allegations that Facebook, now under the parent company name Meta, prioritized profits over kids’ safety. Meta has pushed back on Haugen’s allegations. 

“It’s gone from being a very lonely space where raising awareness was the best possible outcome, to being an advocacy space where we have so many partners, so many different types of partners, and where it feels like policy solutions are possible,” Golin said.  

President Biden also urged Congress to pass legislation aimed at protecting kids online during his State of the Union address, and dozens of states last month sued Meta over allegations it designed and deployed features that harmed young users. 

“Our eggs are not all in one basket,” Golin said.  

“We’re not dependent on one of these things to get the job done,” he said.  

Golin said the advances he’s seen so far keep him motivated to continue.  

“It would be hard to do something for 20 years if you didn’t feel like we were making enormous progress,” he said.

He also said working with parents who advocate on behalf of children they lost after experiencing cyberbullying or other harms on social media has been the “most motivating experience of my entire life.”

“These are parents who have experienced the absolute worst the internet has to offer, and they are fighting for change every day,” Golin said.

“And if they can keep going after what they’ve been through, I certainly can, too,” he added.