Sarah Nelson, MJLST Staffer
Last week, a bill advanced out of the Minnesota House Commerce Finance and Policy Committee that would ban social media platforms from utilizing algorithms to suggest content to those under the age of 18. Under the bill, known as HF 3724, social media platforms with more than one million account holders that operate in Minnesota, like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, would no longer be able to use their algorithms to recommend user-generated content to minors.
The sponsor of the bill, Representative Kristin Robbins, a Republican from Maple Grove, said that she was motivated to sponsor HF 3724 after reading two articles from the Wall Street Journal. In the first, the Wall Street Journal created dozens of automated accounts on the app TikTok, which it registered as being between the ages of 13 and 15. The outlet then detailed how the TikTok algorithm, used to create a user’s For You feed, would inundate teenage users with sex- and drug-related content if they engaged with that content. Similarly, in the second article, the Wall Street Journal found that TikTok would repeatedly present teenagers with extreme weight loss and pro-eating disorder videos if they continued to interact with that content.
In response to the second article, TikTok said it would alter its For You algorithm “to avoid showing users too much of the same content.” It is also important to note that per TikTok’s terms of service, to use the platform, users must be over 13 and must have parental consent if they are under 18. TikTok also already prohibits “sexually explicit material” and works to remove pro-eating disorder content from the app while providing a link to the National Eating Disorders Association helpline.
As to enforcement, HF 3724 says social media platforms are liable to account holders if the account holder “received user-created content through a social media algorithm while the individual account holder was under the age of 18” and the social media platform “knew or had reason to know that the individual account holder was under the age of 18.” Social media platforms would then be “liable for damages and a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation.” However, the bill provides an exception for content “that is created by a federal, state, or local government or by a public or private school, college, or university.”
According to an article written on the bill by the legislature, Robbins is hopeful that HF 3724 “could be a model for the rest of the country.”
Opposition from Tech
As TechDirt points out, algorithms are useful; they help separate relevant content from irrelevant content, which optimizes use of the platform and stops users from being overwhelmed. The bill would essentially stop young users from reaping the benefits of smarter technology.
A similar argument was raised by NetChoice, which expressed concerns that HF 3724 “removes the access to beneficial technologies from young people.” According to NetChoice, the definition of “social media” used in the bill is unacceptably broad and would rope in sites that teenagers use “for research and education.” For example, NetChoice cites to teenagers no longer being able to get book recommendations from the algorithm on Goodreads or additional article recommendations on a research topic from an online newspaper.
NetChoice also argues that HF 3724 needlessly involves the state in a matter that should be left to the discretion of parents. NetChoice explains that parents, likely knowing their child best, can decide on an individual basis whether they want their children on a particular social media platform.
Opponents of the bill also emphasize that complying with HF 3724 would prove difficult for social media companies, who would essentially have to have separate platforms with no algorithmic functions for those under 18. Additionally, in order to comply with the bill, social media platforms would have to collect more personal data from users, including age and location. Finally, opponents have also noted that some platforms actually use algorithms to present appropriatecontent to minors. Similarly, TikTok has begun utilizing its algorithms to remove videos that violate platform rules.
What About the First Amendment?
In its letter to the Minnesota House Commerce Committee, NetChoice said that HF 3724 would be found to violate the First Amendment. NetChoice argued that “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” and that HF 3724 would be struck down if passed because it “result[s] in the government restraining the distribution of speech by platforms and Minnesotans access to information.”
NetChoice also cited to Ashcroft v. ACLU, a case in which “the Supreme Court struck down a federal law that attempted to prevent the posting of content harmful to teenagers on the web due to [the fact it was so broad it limited adult access] as well as the harm and chilling effect that the associated fines could have on legal protected speech.”
As Ars Technica notes, federal courts blocked laws pertaining to social media in both Texas and Florida last year. Both laws were challenged for violating the First Amendment.
HF 3724 advanced unanimously out of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee on March 22. The committee made some changes to the bill, specifying that the legislation would not impact algorithms associated with email and internet search providers. Additionally, the committee addressed a criticism by the bill’s opponents and exempted algorithms used to filter out age-inappropriate content. There is also a companion bill to HF 3724, SF3922, being considered in the Senate.
It will be interesting to see if legislators are dissuaded from voting for HF 3724 given its uncertain constitutionality and potential impact on those under the age of 18, who will no longer be able to use the optimized and personalized versions of social media platforms. However, so far, to legislators, technology companies have not put their best foot forward, as they have sent lobbyists in their stead to advocate against the bill.