Federal Judge Stops Arkansas Social Media Age Verification Law
U.S. District Court Judge Timothy L. Brooks recently issued a temporary injunction to block the implementation of Arkansas' Social Media Safety Act, which was set to take effect shortly after the injunction was filed.
The Social Media Safety Act's objective was ostensibly its stated aim: to protect children under the age of 18 from being exposed to inappropriate online content.
Great, you may be thinking, social media can be detrimental to children's mental health. Keeping them off all social media until they're old enough to handle it is a good idea. The only problem, according to Judge Brooks, was the exceptions for a host of social media platforms, meaning that the law was unconstitutionally vague as it forced a host of obligations on adults as well as children.
No Social Media. Except for All the Ones We Like.
The law created carveouts for sites devoted to creating and sharing non-educational videos – which means TikTok is fine. There are carveouts for companies whose social media businesses account for less than 25% of their revenue — which means Amazon's Twitch is fine. Social media sites designed for professional networking are exempt, so LinkedIn is okay. News, entertainment, shopping, gaming, email, messaging, and streaming – are all 100% exempt from the law. The law even notes that companies with less than $100 million in revenues are exempt from the law, regardless of whether they constitute a social media company or not.
In other words, the law is designed to keep minors off of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, maybe Reddit, and … that's it. A sharp-eyed observer may point out that ultra-right-wing sites like Gab and Parler are also exempt from the law even though their functionality is almost identical to the social media sites they've copied.
Tech Group, ACLU Fight Back
The strange exemptions weren't the only problem that the plaintiff, tech industry group NetChoice, had with the law. According to the ACLU, who wrote a brief to the court to support NetChoice's position, noted that the law can be summed up as stifling "freedom of expression online by requiring all users, including adults, to verify their ages before using existing social media accounts or opening new ones."
The ACLU goes on to say that the legislation threatens free speech rights by forcing social media users to hand over private data or "lose the ability to participate in robust online conversation." And while anyone familiar with social media might be tickled at the idea of any important conversations happening online, it's hard to deny that the ACLU has a point.
Part of the problem with the law, Judge Brooks wrote, is the fact that requiring the submission of verified government IDs to an as-yet unspecified third-party company presents an undue burden to many users. The ID requirements effectively nullify the anonymity enjoyed by users on many sites, blocks the access of users who do not have the necessary government ID, and is a burden to those who may be concerned about privacy and the security of their personal data. And worse yet, all of these burdens would fall on adults – the very people who are supposed to be permitted to use social media under the law.
And then we come to the kids portion of the program. Imposing requirements for third-party verified age verification has never gone well in the past. The ACLU notes that courts have repeatedly struck down similar laws in past decades and that even the less restrictive versions of such provisions have failed to hold up under scrutiny.
It is not clear if Arkansas will appeal the decision or continue to trial. But Judge Brooks' ruling signals an uphill battle for the law's passage and may affect other states who are seeking to enact similar legislation, including Utah and Louisiana.
- Hiring Minors for Your Business (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
- Student Rights at School: Free Speech (FindLaw's Law and Daily Life blog)
- Defamation and Social Media: What You Need to Know (FindLaw's Learn About the Law)
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