New California bill threatens anonymity, free speech online for all, experts say

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(The Center Square) – A new California bill requiring social media companies to determine if users are minors threatens anonymity and free speech online, warn experts. With the world’s major social media companies headquartered in California, this bill, sponsored by the state’s attorney general, would likely take effect nationwide.

SB 796, otherwise known as the Protecting Youth from Social Media Addiction Act, would ban social media notifications to minors 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. While not explicitly calling for ID-based age verification, experts point to similar laws across the country using verification via bank documents or government identification as effectively ending anonymity and thus threatening free speech online.

“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, worsening their overall online user experience in the process,” said James Czerniawski, Senior Policy Analyst in Tech and Innovation at Americans for Prosperity, to The Center Square. “This legislation should serve as a stark reminder that the government shouldn’t be cosplaying as a web designer in forcing websites to adopt certain features that would impact a significant number of people.”

Czerniawski further noted that 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.”

“As kids and young adults increasingly socialize, learn, and work online, we must create a safer online space for children to learn, explore, and play,” said Bonta in a public statement. “This cannot wait. We need to act now to protect our children.”

Similar bills have been passed requiring age verification for social media websites in states including Arkansas, Ohio, and Utah. Florida is also pursuing similar requirements.

A federal judge issued an injunction against Arkansas’ age verification law, claiming that while the law advances a significant government interest in seeking to reduce harm to children, that “many adults who otherwise would be interested in becoming account holders on regulated social media platforms will be deterred — and their speech chilled — as a result of the age-verification requirements, which, as [the state’s own witness] testified, will likely require them to upload official government documents and submit to biometric scans.” The ruling also noted the law is “not narrowly tailored to address the harms that the State contends are encountered by minors on social media.” However, the court did support legal arguments for age verification for adult content, such as those required in the United Kingdom to view pornographic content, suggesting similar laws already adopted in the US in Mississippi, Montana, Texas, and Virginia better hold up to legal scrutiny.

The Arkansas case is currently ongoing, with a full trial expected in the coming months.

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