Citing free speech principles, a federal judge on Monday granted a request by the tech association NetChoice to block California from enforcing a law that regulates how online companies display content to minors, as well as how companies collect data from those users.
In a 45-page ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman said California failed to show that the law's restrictions regarding content and privacy were justified by the state's interest in protecting children from harm.
The California Age-Appropriate Design Code (AB 2273), passed last year, requires online companies likely to be accessed by users under 18 to prioritize their “best interests” and “well-being.” The law also prohibits those companies from collecting or sharing their personal information -- unless doing so is necessary to provide a specific service that the minor is actively using, or unless collecting or sharing the information is in minors' best interests.
NetChoice challenged the law in court, arguing that the statute violates the First Amendment.
Freeman sided with NetChoice, ruling that the organization has shown that the law's provisions likely “do not pass constitutional muster.”
For instance, Freeman wrote, a provision that prohibits tech companies from drawing on minors' data for profiling and targeting doesn't appear to take into account “beneficial aspects of targeted information.”
“NetChoice has provided evidence indicating that profiling and subsequent targeted content can be beneficial to minors, particularly those in vulnerable populations,” she wrote. “For example, LGBTQ+ youth -- especially those in more hostile environments who turn to the internet for community and information -- may have a more difficult time finding resources regarding their personal health, gender identity, and sexual orientation.”
She added: “Even aside from these more vulnerable groups, the internet may provide children -- like any other consumer -- with information that may lead to fulfilling new interests that the consumer may not have otherwise thought to search out.”
The New York Times Company backed NetChoice's request to block the law, writing in a friend-of-the-court brief that the law will unconstitutionally restrict news organizations' ability to distribute editorial material to minors, and will limit teens' ability to access content.
Others, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center and youth advocacy group Fairplay, urged Freeman to uphold the statute.
Fairplay wrote in its friend-of-the-court brief that social media companies' current design and recommendation systems harm children -- in part by allegedly encouraging them to spend more time on the platforms.
California isn't the only state attempting to regulate how social platforms display content and ads to teens.
Arkansas and Utah recently passed laws banning teens under 18 from having social media accounts without parental permission, while Texas passed legislation prohibiting platforms from serving users under 18 with “harmful” content.
Late last month, a federal judge in Arkansas blocked enforcement of that state's law.