California Governor Gavin Newsom has signed two bills that California lawmakers claim will protect children online (AB 2273) and expand transparency around platforms’ content moderation practices (AB 587). Unfortunately, these bills will do nothing of the sort. Instead, they threaten human rights and free expression online.
Digital rights group Fight for the Future issued the following statement, which can be attributed to the group’s director, Evan Greer (she/her):
“California’s AB 2273 will make children less safe, not more safe, online. The bill specifically harms LGBTQ+ youth and other vulnerable young people for whom online community can be a lifeline. The bill is so vaguely and broadly written that it will almost certainly lead to widespread use of invasive age verification techniques that subject children (and everyone else) to more surveillance while claiming to protect their privacy. Some have even proposed that biometric face scans could be required to access websites or online services under this bill. Requiring age verification also makes it nearly impossible to use online services anonymously, which threatens freedom of expression, particularly for marginalized communities, human rights activists, whistleblowers, and journalists. It’s immoral and dangerous for lawmakers to continue using children as pawns to advance poorly-drafted legislation that does more harm than good. If lawmakers want to help kids, they should pass comprehensive data privacy legislation, crack down on child-surveillance software like eproctoring and facial recognition in schools, and invest in education, counseling, and opportunities for youth.
AB 587 claims to be a transparency bill, but ironically it would incentivize platforms to be LESS transparent about their content moderation practices. It’s also plainly unconstitutional. By requiring platforms to report to the government about their moderation decisions related to constitutionally protected speech, the law will make it much more difficult for platforms to adapt their content moderation practices based on emerging threats or user needs. California is clearly suggesting that it’s interested in tracking how platforms address hate speech and disinformation but one could easily imagine such a law in another state demanding information about whether platforms allow LGBTQ+ or abortion-related content. The government attempting to dictate speech rules on online platforms implicates the FIrst Amendment, and is likely preempted by Section 230. All this bill is going to do is unleash a wave of frivolous lawsuits and incentivize platforms to adapt their moderation strategies to avoid legal risk rather than to uphold human rights and reduce online harm.”