In light of this week’s New York Times report showing YouTube still has a significant “wormhole” of videos and comments fetishizing young children, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MI) has proposed a bill that would require YouTube and other video sites to turn off recommendation algorithms on videos starring minors.
“The solution is simple: YouTube and other video-hosting websites should stop recommending videos that feature children,” the bill’s highlight sheet, released today, says. “Yet astonishingly, YouTube refused to do so when asked even though its technology is advanced enough.”
Concerns over child safety on YouTube rose (again) in February, when YouTuber Matt Watson showed how the site’s recommendation algorithm took viewers from videos of adults showing off their bikini hauls to videos of young children wearing swimsuits and gymnastics leotards. And as he showed in his investigation, and as we recently confirmed is still happening, if a viewer lands on a video showing a young child, that video — via YouTube’s ‘Up Next’ recommendation bar — leads to dozens of others.
After Watson’s critical video garnered widespread attention, YouTube implemented new features, like an algorithm it claims is twice as effective at hunting down and deleting predatory comments. The platform also deleted comments on tens of millions of videos of kids, and then stripped the ability to receive comments from hundreds of thousands of (apparently normal, healthy) channels that regularly post videos showing minors.
When the Times’ report was published Monday, it posed another solution: turn off the recommendation algorithm on videos of kids altogether. But YouTube, speaking to the Times, denied its algorithm is what’s keeping the wormhole going, and said it wasn’t willing to turn the system off on videos of minors because recommendations drive 70% of total views across the site.
Hawley’s bill is intended to “force” YouTube to “prioritize the safety of children over money,” per its highlight sheet, given that YouTube’s recommendation system is designed to keep users watching — and, thus, keep the ad dollars coming.
Here’s the nitty-gritty of the bill: Platforms like YouTube would have to turn their recommendation algorithms off entirely on videos that “feature minors.” The videos would still be permitted to show up in search results. That detail about featuring minors is important because the bill has two exceptions. Videos that “simply have minors in the background,” as well as “professionally-produced videos, like prime-time talent-show competitions” would be allowed, and could retain the ability to be recommended.
The bill proposes imposing criminal penalties and “stiff” fines for platforms that do not comply. Hawley did not disclose when he plans to introduce the bill in the House of Representatives.
It’s worth noting this isn’t the only child-safety-and-the-internet bill Hawley plans to officially propose. He recently announced he’ll soon introduce a bill that would prohibit the sale of loot boxes in any game aimed at kids under 18.