With no discussion, the Arkansas House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved a bill that would require social media users in The Natural State to verify they’re 18 years old or older to use the platforms.
The proposal, backed by Gov. Sarah Sanders, is aimed at shielding minors from the harmful effects of social media. Young folks could use the platforms, but only if parents provide consent.
Senate Bill 396, sponsored by Sen. Tyler Dees (R-Springdale) and Rep. Jon Eubanks (R-Paris), would require social media companies including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok to contract with third-party companies to perform age verification. Users would have to provide the third-party company with a digital driver’s license. Dees also sponsored a bill, now law, that requires anyone who wants to watch online pornography to verify they’re an adult.
The social media bill squeaked through the Senate with 18 yes votes, the bare minimum, but passed the House 82-10 with four voting present (same as no). No one asked any questions of Eubanks — who assured his colleagues that Facebook had “the AI and algorithms” to keep track of what users had parental consent without holding on to sensitive data — but because it was amended (to among other things exempt LinkedIn, the most boring social media platform), the bill has to go back to the Senate, where perhaps it will meet some resistance.
This is obviously massive, likely unconstitutional government overreach. Like many other parents, I’m deeply concerned with the effects addictive technologies have on my kids (or might down the road). It’s an especially fraught problem because there are all sorts of benefits to them as well. But while my wife and I already battle with them over screen restrictions and will surely continue to struggle with it, the ultimate solution is obvious: We’ll parent them and impose whatever restrictions we deem reasonable.
Jay Caspian Kang, writing in the New Yorker, recently considered the Utah law on which the Arkansas bill is modeled and explored a lot of the concerns over civil liberties.
The A.C.L.U.’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology project sent me a statement that said the Utah bill and many like it around the country would “restrict the ability of teenagers to explore and make up their own minds about everything from gender identity to safe sex to politics without parental knowledge or involvement.” Under the Utah law, an L.G.B.T.Q. child living in a household with disapproving parents might have fewer resources to find community and support because their parents would be able to look into their messages; children in abusive households would have a harder time using messaging platforms to seek help. Minors will also find it harder to access news. They will probably see fewer protests around the world and fewer videos that might inform them in one way or another, walling them off from online communities of people who care about the same things they do. They, in effect, will almost certainly be isolated from many of the ways people form political beliefs these days, especially those that fall outside of the mainstream.
The potential chilling effect of the Utah bill extends beyond children; its most galling civil-liberties concerns have implications for adults, too. Because Utah residents might have to verify their age using official government identification, adults without I.D.s may effectively be barred from creating social-media accounts as well. “Every adult will have to verify not just their age but their identity, because we don’t yet have a simple way of verifying your age without verifying your identity,” Ben Wizner, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project, told me. “It’s like getting carded to use the Internet.” Without any cover of anonymity or privacy, adults in Utah may become much more hesitant to express their beliefs online or to even seek out sources of information that might, for whatever reason, seem unseemly or potentially toxic. They will be much less likely to comment on anything, really, because they understand that their real identities have been linked to their accounts.