Utah Is About to Roll Over on Kids’ Online Safety

Utah Is About to Roll Over on Kids’ Online Safety

Utah needs to lead the nation in the fight to protect kids. The health, safety, and well-being of our children demand it.

Last March, Utah passed the Social Media Regulation Act and became the gold standard for protecting kids online. At the final hour, however, the state is preparing to do precisely what it said it wouldn’t do: back down. 

Facing pressure from Big Tech lawsuits, the Utah State Legislature is currently advancing a pair of bills, H.B. 464 and S.B. 194, that cede ground to Big Tech and roll back protections for kids on social media. Governor Spencer Cox, for his part, seems poised to sign both bills, despite his promise to not “back down from a potential legal challenge when these companies are killing our kids.” 

Among the Social Media Regulation Act’s most important provisions are three basic requirements. First, social media platforms must verify the age of new and existing users. Second, if a user is under 18, platforms must obtain verifiable parental consent for their child to use the service. And third, platforms must give parents access to all posts and messages sent and received by their child. 

Now, Utah is on the cusp of repealing and replacing its groundbreaking kids’ safety law. I recently testified before the Utah State Legislature, on behalf of the Heritage Foundation, regarding the specific policy shortfalls of one of the two replacement bills—H.B. 464. As I stated in my testimony, and as a joint letter from Heritage Action and other experts makes clear, the changes in both H.B. 464 and S.B. 194 are a major step back for Utah’s kids and parents. 

For one, the two replacement bills weaken the requirement for platforms to have parents give the okay before their kids are allowed on social media. S.B. 194 would require platforms to obtain parental consent only if a child attempts to change certain privacy settings. This disempowers parents—rendering them less effective in the fight for their children’s welfare online. 

The replacement bills also do away with substantive parental controls in favor of half measures. Whereas the existing law requires social media platforms to allow parents to view their children’s posts and private messages—the new changes remove this requirement. In addition, platforms would not be required to enable parental controls unless the minor agrees. This gives kids a de facto veto over their own parents—reducing parents to backseat drivers when it comes to protecting their own children from the worst dangers of social media. 

On top of this, the bills repeal the existing ban on social media’s addictive design features and practices. Social media companies are known to use disruptive visual cues, alerts, algorithms, and engagement features, to hook kids on their services. Part 4 of the original law would broadly prohibit these tricks. But the new bills appear to only require platforms to disable autoplay and infinite scroll functions for minor accounts. 

Proponents of these compromises seem to think that they will give Utah a leg up in court against a powerful and well-funded tech lobby. But as Heritage Action’s letter to lawmakers points out, this is unlikely. The same groups who opposed Utah’s Social Media Regulation Act in 2023 publicly oppose these bills, too. Big tech lobbyists will continue to sue to block the law regardless of what Utah lawmakers do.

More to the point, courts face a completely different set of facts today than they did over 20 years ago. When the Supreme Court rejected Congress’s attempt to shield minors from obscenity online in Ashcroft v. ACLU, the internet was still in its infancy. Only a fraction of kids had access to the internet, let alone smartphones. And the harms of social media were not known to the degree they are today. That makes Ashcroft and other cases precedent worth testing, and Utah’s original law does that.

Instead of keeping the burden on giant social media companies—as the current law does—Utah legislators are watering down protections without any promise of relief. Even worse, this sets the stage for companies to employ the same strategy in other states to lower the bar for kids’ online safety. 

States like Utah are laboratories of democracy and are our best hope for holding these companies accountable for the harm they inflict on our families and communities. But the changes being considered signal that under pressure, states will bend to powerful tech interests. If the threat of litigation from giant social media platforms is sufficient to weaken commonsense safeguards, Big Tech has already won. 

Utah needs to resist that temptation and continue to lead the nation in the fight to protect kids. The health, safety, and well-being of our children demand it.

The post Utah Is About to Roll Over on Kids’ Online Safety appeared first on The American Conservative.

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