Legislatures in more than half of the country targeted young people’s use of social media this year, with many of the proposals blocking adults’ ability to access the same sites. State representatives introduced dozens of bills that would limit young people’s use of some of the most popular sites and apps, either by requiring the companies to introduce or amend their features or data usage for young users, or by forcing those users to get permission from parents, and in some cases, share their passwords, before they can log on. Courts blocked several of these laws for violating the First Amendment—though some may go into effect later this year.
Fourteen months after California passed the AADC, it feels like a dam has broken.
How did we get to a point where state lawmakers are willing to censor large parts of the internet? In many ways, California’s Age Appropriate Design Code Act (AADC), passed in September of 2022, set the stage for this year’s battle. EFF asked Governor Newsom to veto that bill before it was signed into law, despite its good intentions in seeking to protect the privacy and well-being of children. Like many of the bills that followed it this year, it runs the risk of imposing surveillance requirements and content restrictions on a broader audience than intended. A federal court blocked the AADC earlier this year, and California has appealed that decision.
Fourteen months after California passed the AADC, it feels like a dam has broken: we’ve seen dangerous social media regulations for young people introduced across the country, and passed in several states, including Utah, Arkansas, and Texas. The severity and individual components of these regulations vary. Like California’s, many of these bills would introduce age verification requirements, forcing sites to identify all of their users, harming both minors’ and adults’ ability to access information online. We oppose age verification requirements, which are the wrong approach to protecting young people online. No one should have to hand over their driver’s license, or, worse, provide biometric information, just to access lawful speech on websites.
A Closer Look at State Social Media Laws Passed in 2023
Utah enacted the first child social media regulation this year, S.B. 152, in March. The law prohibits social media companies from providing accounts to a Utah minor, unless they have the express consent of a parent or guardian. We requested that Utah’s governor veto the bill.
We identified at least four reasons to oppose the law, many of which apply to other states’ social media regulations. First, young people have a First Amendment right to information that the law infringes upon. With S.B. 152 in effect, the majority of young Utahns will find themselves effectively locked out of much of the web absent their parents permission. Second, the law dangerously requires parental surveillance of young peoples’ accounts, harming their privacy and free speech. Third, the law endangers the privacy of all Utah users, as it requires many sites to collect and analyze private information, like government issued identification, for every user, to verify ages. And fourth, the law interferes with the broader public’s First Amendment right to receive information by requiring that all users in Utah tie their accounts to their age, and ultimately, their identity, and will lead to fewer people expressing themselves, or seeking information online.
Federal courts have blocked the laws in Arkansas and California.
The law passed despite these problems, as did Utah’s H.B. 311, which creates liability for social media companies should they, in the view of Utah lawmakers, create services that are addictive to minors. H.B. 311 is unconstitutional because it imposes a vague and unscientific standard for what might constitute social media addiction, potentially creating liability for core features of a service, such as letting you know that someone responded to your post. Both S.B. 152 and H.B. 311 are scheduled to take effect in March 2024.
Arkansas passed a similar law to Utah's S.B. 152 in April, which requires users of social media to prove their age or obtain parental permission to create social media accounts. A federal court blocked the Arkansas law in September, ruling that the age-verification provisions violated the First Amendment because they burdened everyone's ability to access lawful speech online. EFF joined the ACLU in a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the statute was unconstitutional.
Texas, in June, passed a regulation similar to the Arkansas law, which would ban anyone under 18 from having a social media account unless they receive consent from parents or guardians. The law is scheduled to take effect in September 2024.
Given the strong constitutional protections for people, including children, to access information without having to identify themselves, federal courts have blocked the laws in Arkansas and California. The Utah and Texas laws are likely to suffer the same fate. EFF has warned that such laws were bad policy and would not withstand court challenges, in large part because applying online regulations specifically to young people often forces sites to use age verification, which comes with a host of problems, legal and otherwise.
To that end, we spent much of this year explaining to legislators that comprehensive data privacy legislation is the best way to hold tech companies accountable in our surveillance age, including for harms they do to children. For an even more detailed account of our suggestions, see Privacy First: A Better Way to Address Online Harms. In short, comprehensive data privacy legislation would address the massive collection and processing of personal data that is the root cause of many problems online, and it is far easier to write data privacy laws that are constitutional. Laws that lock online content behind age gates can almost never withstand First Amendment scrutiny because they frustrate all internet users’ rights to access information and often impinge on people’s right to anonymity.
Of course, states were not alone in their attempt to regulate social media for young people. Our Year in Review post on similar federal legislation that was introduced this year covers that fight, which was successful. Our post on the UK’s Online Safety Act describes the battle across the pond. 2024 is shaping up to be a year of court battles that may determine the future of young people’s access to speak out and obtain information online. We’ll be there, continuing to fight against misguided laws that do little to protect kids while doing much to invade everyone’s privacy and speech rights.