Florida’s New Social Media Restrictions on Minors Likely To Spark Lawsuits From Industry Leaders

A host of other states have come under legal scrutiny after passing similar age verification rules, which critics say are ‘unconstitutional.’

AP/Michael Dwyer, file
Governor DeSantis of Florida at Saint Anselm College, October 13, 2023, at Manchester, New Hampshire. AP/Michael Dwyer, file

A groundbreaking social media law enacted in Florida on Monday is already drawing backlash for allegedly infringing upon privacy and free speech rights, raising the possibility of legal challenges to the state and the governor who championed it — Ron DeSantis. 

The new law requires social media companies to close accounts run by users 13 and younger and parental consent for the accounts of 14- and 15-year-olds. It will ask online services to collect data on Floridians, putting their private data at risk of breach, critics say. Users will be forced, they say, to choose between handing over sensitive personal information to websites and losing their access to those channels — as well as their First Amendment rights. 

Similar legislation has passed in Texas, Montana, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Utah. The most extreme age verification bill is on its way to the governor’s desk in Kansas. It would make sites with more than 25 percent “sexual content,” a label it extends to homosexuality, liable to fines if they fail to ensure their users are older than age 18. 

The Florida legislation, which is set to take effect at the start of 2025, doesn’t identify specific sites, though it applies to social media platforms that use features like notification alerts and autoplay videos that encourage compulsive viewing or what’s been derided as “internet addiction.” Yet the law is poised to be challenged on constitutional grounds by free expression advocates representing leaders in the social media industry. 

“This infringes on Floridians’ First Amendment rights to share and access speech online,” the vice president and general counsel, Carl Szabo, of a tech-industry trade association, NetChoice, tells the Sun. “We’re disappointed to see Governor DeSantis sign onto this route. There are better ways to keep Floridians, their families and their data safe and secure online without violating their freedoms.”

NetChoice was part of a coalition of eight organizations advocating for free speech and privacy rights that sent a letter earlier in March to the Florida legislature condemning the bill for its “constitutional infringements.” As Mr. Szabo tells the Sun, “an unconstitutional law will protect exactly zero Floridians.”

The association, whose members include Facebook parent Meta Platforms, TikTok, and Snap, sued Arkansas over a similar law that would have required age verification for social media users and parental consent for minors’ accounts. The social media giants won, and a federal judge blocked the law. NetChoice has raised other challenges to proposed social-media restrictions in California and Ohio. 

“When the government forces age verification, it removes the right of people to speak online anonymously — which can also chill speech — and for many people to access free speech,” a researcher on social media regulatory policy, Shoshana Weissman, at a think tank, The R Street Institute, tells the Sun. “Forcing millions of users to hand over their government IDs, face scans, Social Security numbers, and other sensitive information in order to access speech is an enormous cybersecurity risk.”

The Florida law also requires “pornographic or sexually explicit websites” to “use age verification to prevent minors from accessing sites that are inappropriate for children,” Mr. DeSantis said in a statement. Pornhub’s parent company, Aylo, has blocked users in states that passed laws requiring age identification to access porn. Aylo says those laws encourage users to “migrate to darker corners of the internet” and seek non-compliant adult sites that do not ask for ID. It could, in a dramatic move, also block Pornhub in Florida. 

The Supreme Court has affirmed that efforts to regulate speech, even for minors, must be appropriately tailored. Although the state has a vested interest in protecting minors, “that does not include a free-floating power to restrict the ideas to which children may be exposed,” the court asserted in the 2011 case, Brown v. Entertainment.  

In that case, video game and software industries challenged a California bill restricting the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The Nine held that while California had a legitimate reason to help concerned parents control their children and remedy a critical social problem, the legislation abridged the First Amendment rights of young people whose parents saw violent video games as a harmless pastime.

“Young people have First Amendment rights to information and free expression,” the civil liberties director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, David Greene, tells the Sun. “This includes access to social media, which makes up much of the internet today.” The EFF opposes online age verification mandates on the basis that “requiring individuals to share personally identifying information to visit websites threatens their privacy and anonymity.”

Proponents of the law point to evidence that social media use among young adults increases the risk of depression and mental health issues. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, in his new book, “The Anxious Generation,” says the solution involves wiping Gen Z of smartphones before they reach high school, halting social media before the age of 16, and banning phones in schools. “Social media,” Mr. DeSantis said after signing the bill, “harms children in a variety of ways.”

Florida’s house speaker, Paul Renner, said after the law was enacted that he expects it will lead to lawsuits, the Wall Street Journal reported. “We’re gonna beat them,” Mr. Renner said, “and we’re never, ever gonna stop.” 

The New York Sun

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