California has moved ahead with a bill aimed at holding tech companies legally responsible for features that could be addictive or damaging to children and teenagers. If passed, the bill would allow parents, families or regulators to sue big tech — namely social media giants — for civil penalties and legal damages for addicting children under the age of 17 to their services and products, either knowingly or by negligence.
What is Bill AB-2408?
Advocates of children’s safety online have long-criticized potentially addictive and exploitive social media features — such as targeted advertising and pushy notifications — geared toward children and teenagers. The bill would hone in on any features developed, designed, or maintained by social media platforms before January 1, 2023.
Social media platforms could face anywhere between $25,000 to $250,000 for a single violation.
State Assemblymembers Buffy Wicks (Democrat) and Jordan Cunningham (Republican) are co-sponsoring California Assembly Bill AB-2408, which would be officially known as the Social Media Platform Duty to Children Act. The recently cleared bill should arrive for debate on the Assembly floor later this month.
The proposal, although different, supplements the U.S. Age Appropriate Design Code Bill (AB 2273) also put forward by Wicks and Cunningham — initially inspired by the United Kingdom’s Children’s Code legislation that came before it.
Mixed Feelings About the Bill
The proposal has sparked arguments from both children’s safety groups and advocates of free speech. Assemblymember Cunningham told the Santa Barbara News-Press today that social media companies are well-aware that their platforms are addictive to kids, and parents can do nothing to stop it.
“If you’re going to create a product for children, you need to design it in a way that doesn’t result in some of those kids becoming addicted and having to seek psychiatric care,” Cunningham said. “There’s a real crisis among our youth.”
For some, Bill AB-2408 is far from a good solution. Constitutional litigator and lecturer at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, Adam Sieff, said the bill would violate internet publishers’ First Amendment rights.
Sieff told the Desert Sun while the bill is “well-intended” in promoting “the mental health and emotional well-being of young people on the internet,” punishing social media platforms’ editorial decisions solely to protect young people is not the answer. If California passed a similar law that would affect newspaper publishers, this would be unconstitutional, he added.
“So why are some state lawmakers advancing Assembly Bill 2408, which proposes precisely the same type of unconstitutional penalties for internet publishers?” Sieff said.
California Leads the Charge in Online Safety
California, home to Silicon Valley, is the technological epicenter of the U.S. — with the world’s largest digital platforms headquartered there, including YouTube, Google, and Twitter, among many others. The state has led the country’s fight for online safety and data and consumer protection.
California instituted its own version of the EU’s stringent GDPR, a consumer protection and privacy act known as the CCPA. Since becoming instated in 2020, California’s technological giants have struggled with compliance.
Protection of children has also become a high priority for state legislators. Big tech companies like YouTube have had to align with COPPA for their children-oriented content, while former California Attorney General and current Vice President of the U.S. Kamala Harris has made her stance on privacy and data protection known.
On a federal level, Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri’s testimony to Congress put the spotlight on the app’s detrimental effects on children.