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Social Media Bill Spurs Concerns

3 min read

Arkansas lawmakers are proposing a bill that would require residents or individuals visiting the state to verify they are at least 18 before creating or accessing existing social media accounts, like Facebook or Instagram.

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders endorsed Senate Bill 396, the Social Media Safety Act, which would compel social media companies to use a third-party firm to verify ages via a driver’s license or other form of identification. 

The bill is part of a broader movement, largely taking place at the state level, to regulate social media. Louisiana passed a similar law last year. Others are on the books in California, Minnesota, and Maryland. 

Sanders said the Arkansas legislation would protect minors from being exploited by social media companies that profit from users, no matter their age. “One ill-advised moment online can mean a lifetime of pain offline,” Sanders said at a March 9 news conference. “Now, more than ever, we know about the dangerous impact social media can have on our young people.” 

No one is against protecting children from dangerous content, and studies show real-world mental health consequences for exposure to social media. 

But civil liberties watchdogs are concerned about how such laws would be enforced and what consequences they might have for free speech, and, in turn, a chipping away of an open internet, which “supports economic growth by increasing international trade, productivity, employment, and innovation,” a study from the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation, a think-tank in Washington, D.C., said.   

Such legislation “is the definition of big government,” said Chris Marchese, counsel for NetChoice, a conservative trade association. “Even more alarming is [the laws] would end anonymous speech at a time when Americans are petrified of being canceled. I don’t think politicians are thinking through the consequences of these bills.” 

Under the Arkansas bill, a social media provider could face civil or criminal charges should it fail to verify ages. The attorney general would be charged with oversight. Parents could also take legal action, Sanders said. 

She also said social media companies and third-party age verification services would not be allowed to store identification once it’s verified. Opponents argue data breaches are a risk.

Specifics of enforcement remain unclear.

Faced with a similar bill in Utah, privacy advocates question whether those who use social media for free expression would have fewer places to do so. 

“Anonymous communications have an important place in our political and social discourse,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital privacy think tank, said in a letter to Utah officials.

Such legislation would lead to “fewer people expressing themselves or seeking information online,” EFF said. 

When I was a journalist in China, the government there began to impose real-name registration rules on its 1.3 billion internet users. Such restrictions only increased, creating what some researchers call a network authoritarian model. Dissent has almost all but disappeared online. Arrests of those who speak against the government on the internet are common. 

Alongside human rights concerns, foreign companies located in China quietly began to express anxiety about operations there due to tightening internet controls. In 2016, Reuters reported that “foreign business lobbies have long complained that Chinese internet restrictions go beyond inconvenience and actually limit business competitiveness.”

Arkansas is certainly not China. 

But laws that could restrict free speech and privacy present a slippery slope where rules of what is deemed acceptable are open to interpretation by those who are enforcing them, which could change, said Marchese, of NetChoice. Arkansas could also become siloed from other regions in the U.S. with fewer internet restrictions, he said, an effect that might have a negative outcome on business during a time when lawmakers are pushing for more workforce development and for more high-tech investment here. “There would be a piecemeal internet that nobody likes,” he said. 

“It will lead to the closure of the open internet, violations of the First Amendment and hinder commerce,” Marchese said. “We don’t have a good example of what happens next.”

As of Thursday, SB396, sponsored by Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, and Sen. Jim Petty, R-Van Buren, had been referred to the Senate Insurance & Commerce Committee.

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