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The Battle Over California Social Media Liability Bill Mounts

Social media companies have doubled down on last year’s lobbying efforts to fend off a bill that would have held social media companies liable for addicting children to their content. This year, a new iteration has their attention.

California state capital, surrounded by state government buildings in Sacramento, CA
Shutterstock/Merge Digital Media LLC
(TNS) — Last year, opponents deployed what one lawmaker called “a virtual armada” of lobbyists to successfully fend off a bill that would have held social media companies liable for addicting children to their content.

With the recent introduction of a similar bill, SB 287, the armada is again on the horizon, gearing for another fight.

“A bill like this isn’t something that we can agree on,” said Dylan Hoffman of TechNet, a technology trade association that formally opposed the bill last week. Lobbyists representing the organization are already meeting with legislative aides to share their resistance to the proposal.

“This is quite simply the most important piece of tech legislation in the United States this year,” said Jim Steyer, the CEO of Common Sense Media. His organization reviews movies, YouTube channels and applications for their suitability for children.

He said proponents of the current effort are planning their own meetings with lawmakers, and others, to build support for the bill.

“This year, we’re going to have a more strategic and focused approach,” he said.

The measure is the latest example of the escalating debate over how much social media companies should be responsible for information found on their platforms. That tension is particularly significant in California, home to major tech companies, and where legislators have shown a desire to regulate them.

It also comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether a federal law that has granted limited immunity to online companies for decades applies to recommendations generated by algorithms on their sites.

Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, Google, the owner of YouTube, and Snap Inc. and TikTok, are all members of TechNet, according to its website. Representatives for those companies did not respond to emails requesting comment.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, introduced SB 287 last month. It would make companies liable for using designs, algorithms or features that they know could lead minors to purchase fentanyl, become addicted to their platforms, or cause eating disorders, suicide and other forms of self-harm.

Companies could face a penalty up to $250,000 for every violation. But the measure also allows them to be protected if they conduct regular audits and make corrections when those reviews find issues under the law.

Hoffman, who runs TechNet’s advocacy efforts in California, argued in a Feb. 27 letter to Skinner that the bill would punish companies, rather than protect young people online. He warned it would lead to a flood of frivolous lawsuits and that businesses would “have no choice but to limit or cease operations for kids under 18.”

He also dismissed the provision about audits, saying they could be used against companies in lawsuits.

The letter also foreshadowed a future legal battle if the measure passes. It said the proposal violates the First Amendment rights of companies to moderate information on their sites and for children to receive it.

Supporters of the bill expressed confidence it will hold up under First Amendment scrutiny.

“There are cases that could be brought that might easily violate the First Amendment,” said Ed Howard, lobbyist and senior counsel for the Children’s Advocacy Institute, “but that doesn’t mean all cases would violate the First Amendment.”

Beyond that, Howard said, passing the bill would motivate companies to do more to protect the health of young people who use their platforms.

“There is currently every single profit-based incentive for social media companies to do whatever it takes no matter what to keep children on as long as possible,” he said.

With the threat of lawsuits, and major penalties on the line, lobbying on the bill will likely ramp up.

Former Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, of San Luis Obispo, co-authored the bill last year that tried to hold social media companies accountable for addicting kids to their platforms. It passed through the Assembly without opposition before it died in a Senate committee.

Unlike SB 287, that proposal did not list specific harms that companies could be found liable for.

Cunningham said he is still puzzled as to why his bill stalled.

“I’d love to know, I was just never told,” he said.

Well-resourced opposition likely played a factor. Cunningham said the number of lobbyists focused on the bill, and the requests for meetings about it, was unlike anything he’d experienced during his time in the legislature. He was first elected in 2016.

“They deployed a virtual armada of lobbyists,” he said of the bill’s opponents.

Lobbyists representing TechNet have met with staff of at least some lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee, where SB 287 is expected to be debated and voted on.

The opposition to the bill has not surprised Skinner, an influential leader in the Capitol. She introduced a proposal that would levy a penalty on oil companies whose profits exceed a legally-established threshold. That has also been met with well-financed resistance.

“I will continue to talk to not only TechNet but any other aspect of the industry that has an issue,” Skinner said.

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