Larry Magid speaks about Utah SB 152 on This Week in Tech (TWiT) with Leo Laporte
by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Wherever you live, you should be paying attention to Utah Senate Bill 152 and the somewhat similar House Bill 311. Even though it’s legislation for a single state, it could set a dangerous precedent and make it harder to pass and enforce sensible federal legislation that truly would protect children and other users of connected technology.
The bill would require everyone — including adults — to submit government-issued ID and their street address to sign up for a social media account, including not just sites like Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, but also video sharing sites like YouTube, which is commonly used by schools. The bill even bans minors from being online between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m., empowering the government to usurp the rights of parents to supervise and manage teens’ screen time. Should it be illegal for teens to get up early to finish their homework (often requiring access to YouTube or other social media) or perhaps access information that would help them do early morning chores? Parents — not the state — should be making and enforcing their family’s schedule.
I oppose these bills from my perch as a long-time child safety advocate (I wrote “Child Safety on the Information Highway” in 1994 for the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children and am currently CEO of ConnectSafely.org). However well-intentioned, they could increase risk and deny basic rights to children and adults.
Database of kids and adults
SB 152 would require companies to keep a “record of any submissions provided under the requirements,” which means there would not only be databases of all social media users, but also of users under 18, which could be hacked by criminals or foreign governments seeking information on Utah children and adults. And, in case you think that’s impossible, there was a breach in 2006 of a database of children that was mandated by the State of Utah to protect them from sites that displayed or promoted pornography, alcohol, tobacco and gambling. No one expects a data breach, but they happen on a regular basis.
There is also the issue of privacy. Social media is both media and speech, and some social media are frequented by people who might not want employers, family members, law enforcement or the government to know what information they’re consuming. Whatever their interests, people should have the right to at least anonymously consume information or express their opinions. This should apply to everyone, regardless of who they are, what they believe or what they’re interested in.
Having to submit government ID could have a chilling effect on the free speech of all Utah residents, but this bill would completely muzzle many teens. Current federal law, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, requires parental consent before children under 13 can disclose information to commercial sites, which is one of the reasons kids under 13 are not allowed on most social media sites. This law would effectively raise that age to 18 and completely ban people under 16, even if their parents want them to be online. It could also ban adults who don’t have the required ID.
Parental rights and free speech
This provision not only takes away the rights of teenagers, but also parental rights at the very time when many people in the United States are demanding less government intrusion into the rights of parents.
As for teens, there are some very good reasons why the government shouldn’t ban them from social media. First, social media is speech. Even though the founders couldn’t have envisioned YouTube or Instagram, they did understand the importance of media, which is why the First Amendment says Congress (and by extension all government agencies) “shall make no law…prohibiting the freedom of speech.” And there is nothing in that amendment that says it only applies to adults. During the Revolutionary War, 15-year-olds served in the Continental Army and 16-year-olds were subject to the draft.
Article 13 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child states, “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds.”
And while I’m sure most people agree that children should be protected from certain types of harmful content, both the First Amendment and the UN Convention are designed to empower them to “seek, receive and impart information” which, today, is mostly done through social media.
Nobel laureate Malala Yousafzai was 15 when she was shot by the Taliban because of her public speaking on behalf of education rights for Pakistani girls. If a 15-year-old old Utah teen wanted to make a similar plea via social media, she could be banned from doing so if this bill becomes law.
I also have issues about requiring parental permission for teens, especially 16- and 17-year-olds, before they can access social media. There are many teens who could not get such permission for a lot of reasons, including having parents that don’t have the literacy skills to grant permission, parents who are worried about their own privacy or exposure to legal or immigration risks, parents who are not engaged enough to bother, and parents who don’t want to enable their child to access information because, perhaps, the child is exploring religion, politics or sexual orientation issues that the parents oppose. Should a 17-year-old be banned from joining a Republican group on social media simply because their parents don’t approve of that party? What about a child interested in Christianity whose parents believe in a different religion?
Unintended consequences of well-meaning legislation
It’s important to always look at the potential unintended consequences of legislation. I’m sure the lawmakers in Utah who are backing this bill have the best interests of children in mind. But this wouldn’t be the first law designed to protect children that actually puts them at risk or violates adult rights in the name of child protection. I applaud any policymaker who wants to find ways to protect kids and hold technology companies accountable for doing their part to protect privacy and security as well as employing best-practices when it comes to the mental health and well being of children. But the legislation, whether coming from Utah, another state or Washington, D.C., must be sensible, workable, constitutional and balanced, so it at the very least, does more good than harm.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that receives financial support from technology companies that might be affected by the bills covered in this column.