California appears to be at war with internet freedom.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed new social media transparency legislation into law that poses a serious threat to freedom of expression. Known as AB 587, the law will force social media companies to disclose their content moderation policies and submit detailed descriptions of their efforts to curb speech in certain categories, including hate speech, extremism and harassment. Unless proven to regulate, edit, and no doubt censor what appears on their platforms, social media companies could face hefty fines.
As noted by Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, the law will have draconian consequences. It effectively forces social media companies to please the regulators who are now empowered to watch over them.
But that wasn’t the only assault on online freedom launched by California lawmakers last week. Newsom also enacted the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act. This is arguably an even more disturbing move than AB 587.
The Age-Appropriate Design Code Act aims to protect children from harmful online content by insisting that children’s interests come first when companies design and develop their online services. This law effectively insists that all internet users should be treated like children.
Finally, the law applies to any business “that is likely to be entered by a child” or that cannot determine the age of their consumers “with reasonable certainty” – which is true of most businesses. Organizations must therefore assume that the child, defined by law as any person under the age of 18, is the default user
This does not only mean, for example, that an online business’s privacy settings must be set to the highest level. This law goes far beyond the scope of traditional data protection laws. It also means that companies must ensure that they are not exposing their users to content deemed harmful, as these users may be children. This will affect traditional media as well as social media platforms. They all need to tailor their offerings accordingly, filtering out messages and content that may be considered harmful to children.
Under this law, age verification will likely become the norm for all users on almost all websites
The implications of these new laws are truly shocking. You will no doubt face numerous legal challenges in the coming months that may lead to some changes. But by and large, any changes would be irrelevant. The details of the legislation could be challenged, but the assumptions on which they are based remain largely unchallenged.
Both laws assume above all that Internet users must be protected; that they cannot take care of themselves.
These laws attack core adult values and principles, from privacy to free speech. California is emerging as a society that clearly no longer trusts adults.
But if you think this is a typically Californian phenomenon, then think again. The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act is explicitly based on the British Children’s Code. Additionally, California is the global capital of Big Tech. What happens in California will have global implications. Regulators in all world capitals will no doubt try to emulate the regulatory system currently established in California.
Once again, it seems that our political and technical elites are acting like they know what’s best for us. We have to show them that they really don’t.
Norman Lewis is the author and CEO of Futures Diagnosis.
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