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SALT LAKE CITY — The showdown between big tech companies and the state of Utah has officially begun as Gov. Spencer Cox signed into law the state’s first major social media regulations on Thursday.
SB152 and HB311, passed by lawmakers earlier this month, are touted by lawmakers as necessary to counter the alleged harms social media platforms are wreaking on teenagers. However, the bills have drawn strong opposition from industry groups and raised concerns about freedom of expression and privacy.
Cox and lawmakers have pointed to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found 57% of teenage girls felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, and nearly 1 in 3 were contemplating suicide.
“I’m so proud of the great work you’ve all been able to do along with your colleagues in the legislature,” Cox told lawmakers during a signing ceremony for the bills on Thursday. “These are the first bills of their kind in the United States and it’s great that Utah is leading the effort.”
SB152, sponsored by Cox’s brother-in-law, Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, requires minors to obtain parental consent before signing up for social media beginning March 1, 2024. To prevent minors from creating accounts without their parental consent, businesses are required to verify the age of all Utah users.
The bill stipulates that platforms cannot rely solely on government-issued IDs to verify age, and it remains unclear how companies will be required to do so.
McKell said lawmakers had a strong partnership with advocates in drafting the bill “because they are our children and we care.” And there’s a really, really big problem out there.”
“I think that’s the first step,” he continued. “I’m really optimistic with what I’ve seen. … We’re going to make a difference, and it’s going to start here in Utah.”
SB152 also requires businesses to treat minor accounts differently from adult accounts by restricting their appearance in search results, disabling direct messages with certain accounts, preventing the collection of data from minors, prohibiting targeted advertising to minors, and enabling parental controls for the Activate their children’s accounts.
“We believe these bills are not the solution in and of themselves,” said Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan. “These are tools to help parents and that’s why we created these bills.”
Teuscher is the sponsor of HB311, which creates a private lawsuit for individuals to sue for alleged harm to teenagers and adds a legal presumption that social media harms teenagers. Companies now have to prove that their products are safe for young people.
HB311 also prohibits algorithms or other features that a company knows will trick minors into becoming addicted to social media.
Most major social media companies have not commented publicly on the bills. A spokesman for Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, told KSL.com the company has developed dozens of security tools for its products.
“We want youth to be safe online,” the meta spokesman said in a statement provided to KSL.com. “We’ve built more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools to help parents and teens work together to limit the time teens spend on Instagram and age verification technology to help teens have age-appropriate experiences close. We automatically make teens’ accounts private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks. We don’t allow content that promotes suicide, self-harm or eating disorders, and the content we remove or take action on, we identify over 99% of it before it’s reported to us.”
“We will continue to work closely with experts, policymakers and parents on these important issues,” the statement said.
NetChoice, a technology industry trade association, called the bills unconstitutional. In a press release, the group argued it violated the First Amendment by banning anonymous online speech and violating adults’ lawful access to constitutionally protected speech.
“Utah will soon require online services to collect sensitive information about teenagers and families, not just to verify age, but to verify parental relationships … putting their private information at risk of being compromised,” he said Nicole Saad Bembridge, Associate Director of NetChoice Process Center. “If people don’t have the required documents or don’t want to submit them, they lose access to important information channels.”
The Association of National Advertisers also said the bills violate First Amendment rights by denying minors access to advertising and businesses to exchange messages.
“In this way, the law restricts older teens’ ability to get important information they need,” including information about colleges, employment opportunities and other resources, said Chris Oswald, the association’s executive vice president. “As other lawmakers address these issues, we encourage them to consider more sophisticated standards that recognize the difference between a 7-year-old and a 17-year-old so that we can protect younger children without denying older teenagers access to wealth.” opt out of ad-based content and information available to them online.”
By March 1, 2024, when the bills go into effect, the Utah Consumer Protection Agency will establish an age verification system. The department will also receive $280,000 in one-time funding and $220,000 in ongoing funding to investigate and enforce violations of the law.
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Bridger Beal-Cvetko reports on Utah politics, Salt Lake County communities and breaking news for KSL.com. He is a graduate of Utah Valley University.
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