California's Bill Banning Addictive Social Media Is Going Back to the Drawing Board

If passed, the bill would have made some social media companies liable for up to $250,000 in damages per violation for features that addict children.

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California’s contentious and highly anticipated legislation banning addictive social media sites is dead in the water…for now at least.

The bill, dubbed the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act, failed to pass out of a Senate committee last week. The setback comes amid parallel attempts by dozens of other states to pass legislation regulating social media companies.

If passed, the bill would have let prosecutors sue social media companies for up to $250,000 in damages per violation if they were found to have “addicted” users under the age of 18. Addiction, in this bill’s context, refers to children who were physically, mentally, or emotionally harmed and tried to stop, but couldn’t by way of the platform’s nature. The bill would have only applied to companies that made more than $100 million in revenue in the past year and would exclude streaming services or apps that only allow email or text messaging.

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Lawmakers, both in California and elsewhere say bills like these are necessary to address growing research drawing supposed links between social media use and deleterious mental health consequences for young people. Those concerns reached a fever pitch last year when Facebook Whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed internal Meta research highlighted significant teen mental health issues associated with Instagram use. Those findings were part of The Facebook Papers leak, which Gizmodo has since made public.

AB 2408’s sudden defeat comes as somewhat of a shock. The bill had previously passed through the ​​state Assembly and other legislative committees without a single dissenting vote, according to The Miami Herald. Republican California Assembly member and bill author Jordan Cunningham lamented the news and blamed its failure on Democratic committee chair Anthony Portantino.

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“I am extremely disappointed,” Cunningham said in an interview with The Miami Herald. “The bill’s death means a handful of social media companies will be able to continue their experiment on millions of California kids, causing generational harm.”

Though some researchers and children’s health advocates supported AB 2408, tech industry trade groups like TechNet accused the bill of being overly broad and claimed it could force companies to cease offering services for all users under 18 over fears of lawsuits. In an interview with Politico, TechNet lobbyist ​​Dylan Hoffman argued the bill would violate social media companies’ speech protections by prohibiting them from sharing certain content.

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“It’s clearly about the content and seeking to regulate any feature that you claim as addictive—well, what’s more addictive than showing good content?” Hoffman said. “That’s the inherent problem with this bill because you can’t divorce those two ideas.”

Trade groups weren’t the only ones with issues. Experts at The Electronic Frontier Foundation, normally a crusader for digital rights, told Politico the bill, as written, “has really serious First Amendment problems,” and have suggested new age verification tools needed to identity users under the age of 18 could actually lead to even more corporate surveillance.

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“If you do it wrong, you end up collecting more information on everyone,” EFF Associate Director of Digital Strategy Jason Kelley said in a recent interview with Wired.

The bill had already faced some setbacks prior to this one. Last month, the bill’s authors submitted a revised proposal that eliminated the ability for parents to directly sue social media companies for allegedly addicting their children, a key selling point of the legislation. Under the revised bill legal arguments against tech companies would have to be brought up by prosecutors. Speaking with The Los Angeles Times, Cunningham said he made the changes to try and squeeze out a few more votes and ease concerns from some lawmakers over creating new forms of lawsuits.

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“They get afraid it will open the floodgates to frivolous claims,” Cunningham told the LA Times. “They seem to be more comfortable letting this be handled by the public prosecutors, who already end up taking the lead on this kind of consumer protection-type stuff.”

The recent setback could be a sign of what’s to come in other states like Minnesota which are attempting to pass similar laws attempting to address the nature of social media sites. These bills are similar, though not identical to, another clustering of bills in mostly conservative states attempting to restrict companies’ ability to deplatform or “censor’’ certain users speech and even designate them as “common carriers. First amendment experts say many of these laws, though not for identical reasons, face core First Amendment issues.