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If social media ‘cared about our kids,’ they’d embrace Utah’s rules today, says Cox

Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.
Laura Seitz
Deseret News, pool
Gov. Spencer Cox speaks at the PBS Utah Governor’s Monthly News Conference at the Eccles Broadcast Center in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023.

Asked about Utah’s ongoing campaign against social media, Gov. Spencer Cox spiritedly reiterated his stance that the companies are harming Utah’s youth. He went so far in his monthly news conference to say social media companies are “killing our kids.”

“Significant increases in anxiety, depression and self-harm is perceived as a direct result of consumers spending much more time on social media and the dangerous content and addictive features that are there on social media,” Cox said.

In March, Cox signed two bills restricting social media. One requires age verification for all users, parental access to their children’s social media accounts and time restrictions for when minors can use apps. The state just published its rulemaking on the regulation on Oct. 15. The other forces platforms to get rid of their “addictive” features.

The governor brushed aside suggestions of “undue influence” on businesses from Utah’s laws. No other industry in the world can contract with minors to harvest their data, he said, and “yet for some reason, we’ve allowed this to happen.”

Cox said there are other ways for companies to verify a user’s age besides uploading a government ID, social security number or facial analysis. Online gambling companies, he offered as an example, are already practicing age verification. And, despite there always being ways around restrictions, it makes it harder to gamble online.

“We've made this not very onerous at all, on all of these technologies,” he said. “There are a whole bunch of different ways that they can do age verification.”

Through third-party services, Cox said, social media companies don’t have to keep a user’s information on file. Once a user’s age is verified, they should be able to remain anonymous. His point was that the apps don’t need to know a birthday, only if the user is underage or not. If companies choose to use certain age verification models like government ID uploads, Cox said, those businesses might lose customers.

“They don't have to share that data with the government or with the social media company,” he said. “I am not comfortable with people having to show the government, show the social media company, keep their ID on file, you know lose their anonymity.”

Even with that caveat, the governor was emphatic that the technology exists for other online use cases, even with online pornography — another of the state’s internet battles — so companies and critics should get on board.

Utah is not the only state trying to implement social media regulations. The governor said it was one of the most bipartisan issues he’s worked on in a long time. Even President Joe Biden, when he visited Utah in August, asked “about the bills that we were able to get done because he wants these done in Congress as well,” Cox said.

The issue is being made more difficult than it needs to be, Cox said, and he knows why.

“Because the social media companies are making billions of dollars off of killing,” he said.

“That's why they're making all these arguments like, ‘Oh, this is impossible, and the government's trying to destroy it and they're trying to take away your First Amendment rights.’ They're lying to you.”

He added that this is the reason why Utah is suing them.

“Because that's the only way to hit them. We have to hit them where it hurts just like we did with opioid manufacturers, just like we did with tobacco companies.”

Utah is in the process of suing TikTok over its algorithm, business practices and to keep children on the platform. But they don’t intend to stop at TikTok.

“I can't tell you which ones and when but, absolutely, you can expect more litigation.”

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