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Utah House passes watered-down social media regulations

By Bridger Beal-Cvetko

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    SALT LAKE CITY, Utah (KSL) — The Utah House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to regulate social media, but only after removing language that would have barred teenagers from creating accounts without parental consent.

HB311 initially banned kids under the age of 16 from joining social media at all, and a new version approved by a committee earlier this week would have required social media companies to verify the ages of all users to prevent minors from creating accounts without approval from parents. But, the bill that passed the House on Thursday removed those provisions, instead creating a private right of action meant to make it easier for individuals to sue social media companies for knowingly causing harm.

“This helps to level out that playing field so that parents have tools to be able to hold these companies accountable,” bill sponsor Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, said. “But more than that, this is not a bill that’s been put forward to just generate a bunch of litigation against social media companies, but it’s to … put the right incentives in place to ensure that they’re not harming our kids.”

Teuscher said if the bill passes, it would create a legal assumption that social media use is harmful to minors, meaning social media companies would have the burden of proof if they are sued. HB311 also specifies that online contracts entered into by a minor aren’t valid without parental consent, and it prohibits social media companies from using features known to cause minors to become addicted to social media.

Several House colleagues spoke in support of the bill, and said it balanced the privacy concerns of age verification with the need to protect children from harmful online content and algorithms.

“I have to admit, when the bill first came out, I was a hard ‘no’ because I had many concerns, especially around concepts of government dictating certain behaviors for private companies, around data privacy,” said Rep. Jay Cobb, R-South Jordan. “But the second substitute that’s before us now, I think resolved at least all my concerns. I do think that the key … is the private right of action which actually empowers parents, but at the same time, I believe it gives social media companies the flexibility to design and innovate the way they should.”

HB311 passed the House 68 to 6, with five Republicans and one Democrat in opposition.

A companion bill, SB152, is up for discussion in the Senate. As currently written, it would require parental consent for minors to join social media and would require all users in the state to verify their age. Sponsor Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, on Monday promised an amendment to make the age verification requirement “less prescriptive,” but hasn’t publicly released those changes.

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