California Lawmakers Pass Bills Targeting Social Media Content | Technology

By DON THOMPSON Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California lawmakers sent Gov. Gavin Newsom two groundbreaking bills Tuesday aimed at limiting the downside of social media, as they blamed Congress for not acting on the problem.

A first-of-its-kind measure would require social media companies to make public their policies for removing disturbing content and provide details on how and when they remove it.

The second bill would require companies that provide child-friendly online services to follow age-appropriate design code principles intended to keep children safe. That includes not profiling a child or using the child’s personal information in a way that could harm the child’s physical or mental health or well-being.

“The online world has created tremendous opportunities, but also real and upcoming threats to children, vulnerable communities and American democracy as we know it,” said Democratic Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel, who authored the first bill.

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“We believe that California has a special obligation and a special opportunity to lead on these issues,” Gabriel added during a news conference Tuesday. “We are proud of our tech economy and we know that many of the businesses that these bills regulate are local California businesses. But with the dysfunction in Washington, DC, we believe California needs to step up and lead.”

His measure would require companies to say how they regulate their own content under their social networks’ terms of service. It stalled last year over free speech issues before passing the Senate 33-3 and the Assembly 48-0. It says it is “the intent of the Legislature” that the state attorney general or city attorney take civil action against violators.

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While the measure had bipartisan support, Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez, in opposition, worried it could be used to punish legitimate but unpopular content, particularly since Attorney General Rob Bonta is a progressive Democrat.

“I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t in fact an attempt by the attorney general to harass the citizens of California, particularly those who hold an opposing viewpoint, and I don’t think it’s appropriate for the state attorney general to get involved in any attempt to censor speech,” he said during the debate on Monday night.

But Democratic Sen. Thomas Umberg, who signed the bill, said the measure “basically doesn’t censor content… If they don’t have a policy, they don’t have anything to report. If they have a policy, then they should report how they are implementing it.”

Democratic Sen. Scott Wiener said the bill sought by the Anti-Defamation League is particularly important to the Legislature’s Jewish Caucus, “given anti-Semitism rampant on social media.”

Opponents include the California Chamber of Commerce, the Computer and Communications Industry Association, the Consumer Technology Association, the Internet Coalition, Netchoice, and TechNet.

A coalition of opponents said companies must already make their content moderation policies public, and the bill goes too far by requiring them to disclose to the attorney general “sensitive information about how we implement policies, detect activity, train employees and use technology to detect content that needs moderation”.

The second bill specifically aimed at protecting children from inappropriate content online passed the Senate 33-0 also with bipartisan support, although seven Republicans did not vote. Cleared the Assembly, 60-0.

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The move “will represent a major positive step towards creating a global standard for the protection of young people online. That is an aspiration that I think we can all agree on,” said Democratic Sen. Josh Newman, who approved the bill in the Senate.

It is based on a similar measure in the UK. Also opposed are the Chamber of Commerce and some of the tech industry associations. A coalition that includes the Entertainment Software Association said the bill includes “too much of an inclusive standard and would capture far more websites and platforms than necessary.”

A third measure making its way through the Legislature would require large social media platforms to release to the public beginning in mid-2023 statistics on content that violated their policies that were recommended or amplified by the platform’s algorithms.

Another, more controversial measure failed in the Senate Appropriations Committee earlier this month after it was strongly opposed by the influential tech industry. It would have subjected some popular social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to fines for using features they know could harm children.

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