Louisiana’s Bill To Protect Kids Online Will Do More Harm Than Good
The trickle of state legislatures introducing proposals that would require social-media platforms to obtain parental consent before registering underaged users is fast becoming a torrent. Louisiana on Monday became the latest to do so with the introduction of S.B. 162 in the State Senate. The bill would require platforms with at least 5 million account holders to obtain parental consent for all would-be users under the age of 16. It also explicitly requires that platforms confirm the age of all Louisianan account holders – including existing users.
Advocates of mandated age verification on social media may have good-faith concerns for the well-being of the state’s youth. However, they fail to account for the vast privacy risks their preferred policy necessarily entails. The most suggested form of verification is to require users to submit identification. Forcing platforms to acquire sensitive user data – say, a scan of a government-issued identification card – creates myriad hacking opportunities for cyber criminals. Even large companies and governments fail routinely to safeguard sensitive data. For instance, DC Health Link in March revealed that a hacker stole the data of more than 56,000 customers, reportedly including members of Congress and staffers. Besides private criminals, foreign adversaries – e.g., Moscow and Beijing – pose an ever-greater cyber threat. What’s more, other methods of age verification are still unreliable, insecure, or otherwise unfeasible.
Mandating age verification on social media also largely eliminates the ability of all users – adult and child alike – to speak online anonymously. This would likely abridge recognized constitutional protections. In McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission (1995), the Supreme Court held that Margaret McIntyre was entitled by the First Amendment to distribute political pamphlets anonymously. “Under our Constitution, anonymous pamphleteering is not a pernicious, fraudulent practice, but an honorable tradition of advocacy and of dissent,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority. “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority.” Justice Clarence Thomas, concurring in the judgement, examined the America’s free-speech tradition and concluded that the historical record indicates “the Framers understood the First Amendment to protect an author’s right to express his thoughts on political candidates or issues in an anonymous fashion.” Curtailing citizens’ right to speak freely and anonymously, particularly on social media, is unlikely to survive judicial scrutiny.
The proposal’s flaws don’t end there. S.B. 162 would “prohibit the use of targeted or suggested groups, services, products, posts, accounts, or users in the (minor’s) account.” Disallowing teens from discovering new content would radically degrade their user experience. While social media algorithms do occasionally recommend harmful content to young users, they far more often assist users of all ages in a number of ways. Moreover, banning recommendations would, in fact, prevent platforms from tailoring the sort of family-friendly experience S.B. 162’s advocates desire for young users. Even if one were to concede the necessity that government regulate children’s online experience – a matter handled best by parents – this provision is far too sweeping. It would implement a chainsaw to do a scalpel’s work.
When considering proposed internet regulations, conservative lawmakers like those who control both houses of Louisiana’s legislature should remember that economist Friedrich Hayek’s famous “Knowledge Problem” theory – which states that no legislature or bureaucrat possesses or can possess the knowledge necessary to effectively plan an economy – holds true as much in digital markets as in any other sector.
S.B. 162 is undoubtedly well-intended but fundamentally bad policy, and Louisiana lawmakers and their constituents should view it with skepticism.
Published on April 13, 2023