Analysis: US states take center stage in battles for control of social media

  • US states set to regulate major online platforms
  • Children and freedom of expression are at the heart of many measures
  • Critics say some laws could backfire on you

LOS ANGELES, June 16 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — Parents in California may soon be able to sue social media giants for making children dependent on their platforms under a bill before the California legislature. ‘State.

It’s part of a flurry of state-level activity aimed at regulating social media on issues ranging from child safety to political bias, with some lawmakers and activists saying national efforts to limit the power of Big Tech are stalled.

“My perception is that the federal government is paralyzed,” said Zack Stephenson, a Minnesota state representative promoting a bill that would prevent social media companies from using algorithms to decide content. to show the children.

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“We have to start pulling levers… It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s a start.”

About 70% of the US population has a social media account, according to the Pew Research Center, while a 2022 study by the nonprofit Common Sense Media found that nearly 40% of children aged 8 to 12 year olds have used social media.

There is a growing debate about the influence of social media, data rights and free speech issues, to concerns about the impacts on the mental health of users and the spread of hate and misinformation online .

Carl Szabo, vice president of technology industry group NetChoice, whose members include Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, said tech companies were already responding, citing privacy features on Apple devices and parental controls on the system. operating Android from Google as examples.

National lawmakers have drafted a number of bills targeting the sector – from new privacy standards and algorithm regulations to removing liability protections on user-posted content – but none have yet been passed. promulgated.

States are responding with a series of actions of their own, engaging in heated debates about the extent to which government should regulate speech and business.

There are currently more than 28 bills pending in more than half a dozen states that seek to regulate social media platforms, according to research by the National Conference of State Legislatures provided to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

In total, lawmakers in 34 states have considered more than 100 such bills, according to the data, though dozens either failed to pass or did not pass.

“States are the laboratories of democracy,” said Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of Accountable Tech, a nonprofit group that advocates for more regulation of tech platforms.

“Especially since the federal government has done nothing on this issue for so long.”

Szabo said such efforts to regulate social media risk undermining free speech and limiting consumer choice.

“We should allow individuals to make choices about what is best for them and their families,” he said. “Not unelected bureaucrats and people sitting in state capitols.”

CHILDREN, SPOTLIGHT ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Among the most contested issues is freedom of speech, with former President Donald Trump’s Twitter and Facebook bans proving a flashpoint for the debates.

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the implementation of a Texas law aimed at preventing social media companies from banning or censoring users based on their “viewpoint.” A lower court blocked provisions of a similar law in Florida.

Industry groups say moves to restrict editorial control of platforms would allow hate speech such as neo-Nazi abuse and foreign state propaganda, while some conservatives have complained that Big Tech is suppressing their voices.

Many other measures are aimed at protecting children. Many popular social media sites require users to confirm they are over 13 to register, but do not always require proof of age.

In Minnesota, Democrat Stephenson worked with a fellow Republican to help garner support for a bill to prevent the use of algorithms to choose content for children.

He said regulation was needed to prevent platforms from designing algorithms that encourage compulsive social media use and direct children to harmful content, such as answering diet questions with messages that favor children. eating disorders.

The algorithm bill was killed in the state Senate, but Stephenson said he expects it to be reintroduced in the next session.

Szabo countered that such a ban would have broad consequences, such as blocking algorithmic recommendations from apps that suggest books to read or nearby hiking trails.

California’s lower house passed a bill in May that would allow families to sue social media providers with more than $100 million in revenue if they fail to take steps to prevent under-18s from becoming dependent on their platforms.

A second bill would impose design standards that include limiting the collection of location information and other sensitive data from children on the platforms. Both bills require the support of the upper house of the Senate to become law.

“I want my kids to be tech-savvy and tech-native,” said Buffy Wicks, the assemblywoman who drafted the design bill.

“But I also want to make sure they are protected.”

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES?

Some proposals to protect children online could actually lead to increased surveillance of users, as this will put pressure on platforms to monitor the activity of minors, digital rights group the Electronic has warned. Frontier Foundation.

It could also lead to censorship, the group warned, as platforms clean up ever larger amounts of content to avoid liability for harm.

Ari Cohn, an attorney at TechFreedom, a tech policy nonprofit that generally opposes increased regulation of the sector, said many of the state’s proposals undermine free speech principles.

“Social media companies have the right to decide what kind of discourse they want on their platforms,” he said.

Wicks said she hopes California’s proposed regulations to protect children online will encourage other states to adopt similar measures.

“We have a reputation for pushing boundaries and holding Big Tech accountable,” she said.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight For the Future, said harnessing the power of Big Tech in the long term will require more competition, giving consumers more options and limiting the power of platforms. individual shapes.

Greer has backed efforts to target tech market giants with antitrust action.

“We need to move beyond harm reduction…and embrace policies that pave the way for real alternatives,” Greer said.

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Reporting by Avi Asher-Schapiro @AASchapiro; Editing by Sonia Elks. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which spans the lives of people around the world struggling to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org

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