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May 19, 2024 4:43 am

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Pa. House passes bill requiring parental consent on social media, despite first amendment concerns

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Ian Karbal, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
May 8, 2024

A bill intended to allow parents more oversight of their children’s’ use of social media passed the House Wednesday with a 105-95 vote.

The bill would require social media platforms to verify the age of new users creating accounts and attempt to request parental consent of anyone under 16. It would also prohibit social media companies from selling minors’ data to third parties and using it to target ads, and require platforms to have a clear policy for reporting threats and harassment.

“The internet and social media have grown exponentially over the last few decades,” Brian Munroe (D-Bucks), the bill’s sponsor, said on the floor. “It is far past time for us to act on behalf of children and parents and put in place a modicum of protections and guardrails to protect our children.”

But the bill has come under fire from free speech advocates and lobbying groups representing social media companies. It also closely resembles laws passed in other states that have been blocked by courts for first amendment violations. It’s one of several Pennsylvania bills looking to regulate the use of social media amid concerns over its impacts on the privacy and mental health of children and teenagers.

Liz Randol, the legislative director at the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, is particularly concerned about a section of the bill that would require social media companies to create policies allowing users to report “hateful” posts perceived as humiliating or vilifying groups or individuals. Those companies would then have to respond to those violations or face financial penalties from Pennsylvania’s Attorney General.

According to Randol, the language in this section of the bill very closely resembles a New York law that received an injunction because it violated the first amendment rights of social media companies.

“It’s basically what the user is experiencing as vilifying or humiliating that would somehow count as sufficient enough that would warrant the platform to respond to every one of these things,” Randol said. And if they fail to do any of this stuff, it’s under threat of penalty — a $1,000 penalty each day for each user they haven’t responded to.” 

The New York District Court Judge said that requiring hate speech policies and subsequent actions effectively amounted to compelling speech from the companies.

“You can’t force the private platforms to compel speech,” Randol said. “It’s almost embarrassing how flagrantly unconstitutional this is and the amount of effort they’re putting in to get this thing passed. I have to say I’m kind of baffled by it.”

In an interview, Munroe said while he is aware of the New York law, he isn’t concerned with how his bill might fare in court if passed.

“The first thing they kind of teach you about being a state rep is that you don’t legislate concerning what the courts are going to do,” Munroe said. “That’s a separate branch of government.”

Moreover, Munroe believes the bill’s requirements for social media companies are in line with broader anti-discrimination rules.

“We’re not telling these social media companies what policy to make,” Munroe said. “We’re not telling them what it’s supposed to look like.”

But Randol and others have also raised concerns about the enforceability of the law’s requirement for social media companies to verify their users’ age. Moreover, opponents of the bill have raised concerns that any method of verifying their users’ age could result in the privacy violations of all users.

The Computer & Communications Industry Association, a trade group representing some of the largest social media companies, wrote a five page letter in opposition to the bill. Among their complaints was that the age verification requirement could force companies to collect even more data than they already do in order to verify their users’ age.

The ACLU agrees.

“The age verification would apply to every single user,” Randol said. “Whatever that data is that they’re collecting just sort of ratchets up the total amount of identifying information about an individual you’d have to give to any platform which you’d want to create a new account.”

Randol noted, however, that the current version of the bill is a step in the right direction from the one that was first introduced earlier this year, and is even in favor of the bill’s limits on data collection.

A previous version of the bill came under fire for effectively requiring social media platforms to monitor the private conversations of minors on their platforms in order to notify their parents of potentially harmful or concerning messages. That was amended out by Munroe Tuesday following privacy concerns raised by other lawmakers as well as lobbying groups like Planned Parenthood.

While Munroe understands concerns over the bill, he believes the benefits outweigh the harms.

“As a parent to a 13 year old daughter and a 16 year old daughter, I think parents have certain rights,” Munroe said. “They should be allowed to parent their children.”

Pennsylvania Capital-Star is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Pennsylvania Capital-Star maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Kim Lyons for questions: info@penncapital-star.com. Follow Pennsylvania Capital-Star on Facebook and Twitter.

This article is republished from Pennsylvania Capital-Star under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.