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Big Tech Companies Oppose Pennsylvania’s Social Media Bill

The bill would prevent kids younger than 16 from creating a social media account without parental consent as well as compel social media companies to better monitor group chats with minors.

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(TNS) — A Pennsylvania bill designed to better protect children online has already generated opposition from tech companies.

House Bill 2017, drafted by Rep. Brian Munroe and three high school students, would prevent kids younger than 16 from creating a social media account without parental consent and compel social media companies to better monitor group chats with minors.

The bill is set for a House vote Tuesday after clearing the committee for consumer protection, technology and utilities last week. The legislation has already been altered following pushback from the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that includes Meta and X.

In a five-page letter of opposition, the group argued that limiting teenagers' internet access would infringe on their First Amendment right to information.

Mr. Munroe told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette he has received phone calls from Facebook, eBay, and the online game platform Roblox.

"We probably gave them 80% to 85% of what they were asking for," said the Democrat from Bucks County, stressing that the changes have not significantly watered down the bill.

"If I get a phone call from Facebook, and it's reasonable, and I can still achieve my goals of protecting kids and empowering parents, then I'm OK with it," Mr. Munroe said.

Without those concessions — and potentially even with them — the legislation could spark a legal challenge.

Judges blocked similar bills in Arkansas, Utah and Ohio that sought parental consent requirements or age verification, following lawsuits from NetChoice, an industry group that includes Meta and TikTok, which challenged the laws on First Amendment grounds.

Pennsylvania's bill could easily be challenged in the same way, said Ari Lightman, a Carnegie Mellon University professor of digital media and marketing.

"I think it will actually backfire," Mr. Lightman said. "State legislators going after platforms is going to be incredibly expensive. Ultimately, they'll lose and we'll pay the bill."

A better solution, he said, is comprehensive privacy legislation at the federal level.

Florida is ready to fight for its own social media bill, signed into law Monday by Gov. Ron DeSantis, with House Speaker Paul Renner telling reporters he's confident the state can win in court.

It's not yet clear whether Pennsylvania's legislation has the support of Gov. Josh Shapiro. In his former role as attorney general for the state, Mr. Shapiro investigated the impact of Instagram and TikTok on young people, alongside a nationwide coalition of AGs.

Mr. Munroe said he didn't propose the new bill to simply join the wave of opposition against Big Tech companies.

"In the beginning ... it was a cry for help from these kids," he said, referring to the three students, Max Jin, Luka Jonjic and Dylan Schwartz, who helped him draft the bill.

Their documentary video — "America's Silent Struggle: Social Media's Impact on Teens' Mental Health" — was honored by C-SPAN last year.

Mr. Munroe said he also worried about his own daughter, who was part of a Snapchat group where another young girl was being bullied.

"I don't really talk about it much, but I tried to go through the school district. All I wanted to do was reach out to that young girl's parents, to let them know that this bullying was happening."

He said he realized at that moment that the Legislature should do more.

"We're the United States, we've got freedom of speech. But as parents, we also have freedom of raising our children in a safe environment," said Mr. Munroe, who represents the 144th legislative district, just north of Philadelphia.

House Bill 2017 includes additional protections for teenagers by preventing data mining and allowing kids to ask social media sites to remove personal information. The bill would specifically bar companies from selling or profiting from personal information from children under 16.

Mr. Lightman said children are viewed as the next generation of users and their data is therefore highly valuable to tech companies. So far, on issues of privacy, platforms have done an unsatisfactory job of policing themselves, he said.

"We need fundamental policy reform," he said. "But this isn't it."

© 2024 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.