California Senate passes bill that could threaten anonymity, free speech online



(The Center Square) – The California Senate passed a bill requiring social media age verification that experts warn threatens anonymity and free speech online for all Americans.

SB 976 would ban social media notifications to minors during school hours and between 12:00 AM and 6:00 AM without parental consent, require chronological, not algorithmic social media feed presented to minors without parental consent, and only allow these features if a social media company has “reasonably determined” the user is not a minor. The bill empowers the California Attorney General to define what is considered “reasonable” by January 1, 2027, which has many concerned this would mean tying highly private information such as government identification to social media use.

“The fact is there isn’t a reliable method of verifying age and identity without collecting users’ personal information such as government IDs, birthdates, and other information,” warned a coalition of business organizations and technology companies, including the California Chamber of Commerce and Technet, in opposition. “This is even more difficult when trying to verify minors, who often don’t have identification.”

While SB 976 does not call for ID-based verification, similar laws around the country aimed at limiting online content for minors have passed in Arkansas, Ohio, and Utah, with Florida also pursuing similar requirements. Experts also warn that due to the size of California’s market, many companies could choose to require age verification on a larger scale.

“This legislative proposal will do little to address the mental health issues concerning children while simultaneously compromising the privacy of not just Californians, but all Americans,” said James Czerniawski, Senior Policy Analyst in Tech and Innovation at Americans for Prosperity, to The Center Square. Because California “is the largest single market in the country, from a compliance standpoint, companies will be likely to have a uniform approach to apply to all places even if the regulation is just in California.”

The bill passed out of the Senate with only two “no” votes from Republican state senators Brian Jones, R-Santee, and Kelly Seyarto, R-Murrieta. The bill’s only Republican co-author, State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, abstained.

Major support came from the state’s top leaders, from California Attorney General Rob Bonta, who sponsored the bill, to State Sen. Scott Wiener.

“I’ll be voting for this bill today with some reservations,” said Wiener in a speech before the floor vote. “Unfortunately there are kids who don’t have that kind of relationship with their parents … sometimes access to these services can be a lifeline for these kids.”

Wiener echoed the U.S. Surgeon General, whose 2023 report said social media generally has a “profound risk of harm” to young people but that “social media may support the mental health and well-being of lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, intersex and other youths by enabling peer connection, identity development and management, and social support.”

The bill now heads to the Assembly, where it must pass in committees, a general Assembly vote, and potential reconciliation with the Senate version before going to the governor’s desk.

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