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As Utah’s social media laws head to court — nobody is happy

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As Utah aims to be one of the first states in the country to take on social media giants like TikTok and Facebook, some argue the state’s 2024 revisions were unnecessary.

Citing a youth mental health crisis, Utah passed sweeping legislation in 2023 to regulate how minors interact with social media. That included adding age verification and parental consent for minors to use social media and restricting access to apps between the hours of 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. This year, those laws were scaled back in the face of a pending court case.

Sponsors said the changes are aimed at helping Utah’s case against the companies in court. But neither Big Tech nor some of the law’s supporters are happy about it.

Both NetChoice, a trade group representing TikTok, Google and Facebook’s parent company Meta, as well as conservative think tanks, have criticized the laws, but for different reasons.

“Unconstitutional laws help no one,” said director of NetChoice Litigation Center Chris Marchese in a statement. “Despite going back to the drawing board, Utah is still not on the right side of the Constitution."

While industry leaders say they also want to keep minors safe online, NetChoice argued Utah’s laws still infringe on rights to free speech and privacy.

“The First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting an individual’s ability to access lawful speech, engage in discourse, express opinions, and more,” the organization argued to the Utah Legislature during a February hearing for SB194.

“Indeed, the right of free speech is enjoyed by minors and adults alike. When challenged, the Supreme Court has consistently reaffirmed this bedrock First Amendment principle.”

Utah’s laws state social media companies will not be able to collect and sell data associated with minors' accounts. The Utah Division of Consumer Protection will also be tasked with setting guidelines for how social media companies can verify a user’s age without collecting a substantial amount of personal data.

But some say it does not go far enough.

In written commentary, Daniel Cochrane, senior research associate for the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, argued that 2024’s changes represented a “major step back for Utah’s kids and parents.”

Cochrane said Utah “rolled over” to tech companies and the state’s concessions were unnecessary because it is too early to tell if some of the stricter measures like parental consent to create an account would hold up in court.

“Courts face a completely different set of facts today than they did over 20 years ago [when similar cases were heard],” he said. “Only a fraction of kids had access to the internet, let alone smartphones. And the harms of social media were not known to the degree they are today.”

Lawmakers in other states have moved forward with more restrictive social media laws than Utah’s. On April 8, Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation requiring minors to have parental consent in order to create a social media account.

Filing deadlines for plaintiffs and defendants in the case challenging Utah’s social media laws are next month.

Sean is KUER’s politics reporter.
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