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Proposed law in Minnesota would ban algorithms to protect the children

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Minnesota state lawmakers are trying to prohibit social media platforms from using algorithms to recommend content to anyone under age 18. The bill was approved Tuesday by the House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee in a 15-1 vote. The potential state law goes next to the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee, which has put it on the docket for a hearing on March 22.

The algorithm ban applies to platforms with at least 1 million account holders and says those companies would be “prohibited from using a social media algorithm to target user-created content at an account holder under the age of 18.” There are exemptions for content created by federal, state, or local governments and by public or private schools.

“This bill prohibits a social media platform like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, WhatsApp, TikTok, and others, from using algorithms to target children with specific types of content,” the bill summary says. “The bill would require anyone operating a social media platform with more than one million users to require that algorithm functions be turned off for accounts owned by anyone under the age of 18.” Social media companies would be “liable for damages and a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation.”

Tech-industry lobbyists say the bill would violate the First Amendment, prevent companies from recommending useful content, and require them to collect more data on the ages and locations of users.

“Too many kids are struggling”

Rep. Kristin Robbins (R-Maple Grove) sponsored the bill, saying that “too many kids are struggling, or worse, dying,” according to an article about the committee vote on the Minnesota House website. Robbins said she was moved to act by Wall Street Journal articles about TikTok pointing minors to sex and drug videos and eating-disorder videos. Robbins “believes [the bill] could be a model for the rest of the country,” the article said. Online platforms’ use of algorithms has also come under fire in Congress.

Tech industry lobbying group NetChoice told Minnesota lawmakers that the bill is “well-intentioned” but “undermines parental choice, removes the access to beneficial technologies from young people, and is a clear violation of the First Amendment.” NetChoice members include Facebook, Google, TikTok, Twitter, and other tech companies.

“Clear violation of the First Amendment”

Florida and Texas laws that regulate social media in other ways have been blocked by federal judges who found that the laws violate the companies’ First Amendment rights to moderate user-submitted content. Florida’s law would have made it illegal for large social media sites like Facebook and Twitter to ban politicians, while the Texas law tries to ban “censorship.” Tech-industry groups won preliminary injunctions blocking both of them.

Democrats have a majority in the Minnesota House while Republicans have a majority in the state Senate. Commerce Finance and Policy Committee Chair Rep. Zack Stephenson (D-Coon Rapids) “was unimpressed by the argument that algorithms shouldn’t be barred because they are a vehicle companies use to send healthy, age-appropriate content. He compared it to saying you can’t ban cigarettes because it would prevent young people from the benefits of cigarette filters,” the article on the House website said.

“These companies are doing immense damage to our communities, to our children,” he said. “I am very determined to take some action before it is too late.”

NetChoice argued that the First Amendment case against the bill is strong, writing:

In Sorrell v. IMS, the Supreme Court ruled that information is speech and that a Vermont law could not prohibit the creation and dissemination of information including the selling of data to a database. Even more relevant here, multiple court cases have held that the distribution of speech, including by algorithms such as those used by search engines, are protected by the First Amendment. This proposal would result in the government restraining the distribution of speech by platforms and Minnesotans access to information. Thus, HF 3724 will be deemed by courts as a violation of the First Amendment.

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