A new California law that aims to protect young web users will force tech companies to act as “roving censors” of online speech, the tech industry group NetChoice says in a new lawsuit.
The California Age-Appropriate Design Code (AB 2273), passed earlier this year, requires online companies that are likely to be accessed by users under 18 to prioritize their “best interests” and “well-being."
“Rather than protect minors, AB 2273 will harm them, along with the Internet as a whole,” NetChoice writes in a complaint filed this week in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
The organization is seeking an injunction prohibiting California from enforcing the law, arguing it's invalid for several reasons, including that it violates the federal and state constitutions.
NetChoice contends that terms like “best interests,” “well-being” and “harmful” are inherently subjective, which will lead companies to err on the side of suppression.
Online businesses “will face overwhelming pressure to over-moderate content to avoid the law’s penalties for content the state deems harmful,” the group writes.
NetChoice specifically says the law violates the First Amendment, because it “interferes with an online service’s First Amendment rights to editorial discretion,” and “impermissibly restricts how publishers may address or promote content that a government censor thinks unsuitable for minors.”
The new law additionally prohibits online sites likely to be accessed by minors from collecting or sharing their personal information, unless necessary to provide a specific service the minor is actively using, or unless collecting or sharing the information is in minors' best interests.
NetChoice says those privacy provisions will require web companies to implement age verification procedures that “will frustrate anonymous and casual browsing, magnify privacy concerns, and wrest control over minors’ online activities from parents and their children.”
Some advocates cheered the bill when it was passed. Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, stated at the time that the legislation marked “a huge step forward toward creating the internet that children and families deserve.”
But critics, including Techdirt's Mike Masnick, said the legislation could sweep in a huge variety of websites not specifically aimed at children and teens -- including Techdirt.
“We’re not targeting kids, but I’m going to assume that some of you who visit the site are under the age of 18. Over the years, I’ve had quite a few high school students reach out to me about what I’ve written -- usually based on their interest in internet rights. ” he wrote last week. “I think it’s great when high schoolers take an active interest in civil liberties and the impacts of innovation -- but now that’s a liability for me”
Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman wrote in an op-ed that the bill would “harm both kids and adults alike” by effectively requiring businesses to verify the ages of their online users.
“Mandatory age authentication would change how everyone uses the Internet,” he wrote.