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Despite the numerous attempts by lawmakers to force tech companies to accept responsibility for what’s happening to teens and young adults on their social media platforms, nothing ever seems to change. With every new bill, the tech industry mobilizes, and what would have been an outstanding piece of legislation to protect our kids turns into a weakened, watered-down piece of legislation that eventually dies in committee.
Social media companies vs. new legislation
So, as might be expected, the tech industry is once again mobilizing to defeat a new piece of legislation, known as Senate Bill 680. The California bill attempts to hold social media companies liable for a full range of harmful behaviors that are occurring on their platforms, including the glamorization of eating disorders, suggestions to commit self-harm, and dangerous depictions of early drug use.
From a very high-level view, Senate Bill 680 seems to be a rational, highly logical piece of legislation. Who wouldn’t approve of social media companies attempting to get rid of those obvious very bad behaviors on their platforms? And the lawmakers are not exactly taking a ham-fisted approach to this legislation. They are not demanding that this content disappear entirely overnight, which would be incredibly naive. Instead, they are focusing on the algorithms and design features that have been shown to lead to harm to children.
The powerful tech lobby
As soon as the new legislation came up for debate, the tech lobby swung into action with the same defense mechanisms that have worked so well in the past. They wrapped themselves in the American flag, declaring that this piece of California legislation directly goes against federal law, and would ultimately prove very harmful to 1st Amendment free speech rights. In short, they attempted to paint the new legislation as dangerously anti-American.
What makes this opposition to the new legislation so frustrating is that the big tech companies – such as Meta (parent company of Facebook), Snap, and TikTok are not opposing the legislation directly. Thus, you will likely never find a soundbite by Mark Zuckerberg calling on people to defeat the new bill. Instead, there are powerful tech lobbying groups working behind the scenes that do all the dirty work. They are paid lobbyists told to support a certain cause, and they do so with gusto.
And this is a pattern that appears again and again. Anytime there is an effort to rein in the big social media companies, tech lobbying groups mobilize quickly, invoke the U.S. constitution or our Founding Fathers, and succeed in watering down or defeating any legislation. We can see this pattern with Assembly Bill 1394, which would force social media companies to clamp down on child sexual abuse happening on their platforms. Again, what’s so illogical or irrational about this? And the bill is sufficiently narrow enough that it couldn’t possibly pose an existential risk to the likes of Facebook, right?
But, as you might have guessed by now, the tech lobby doesn’t like Assembly Bill 1394. They view it as excessively punitive, since it would expose social media companies to multi-million-dollar fines if they fail to remove sexually explicit material from their platforms. As the tech lobby sees it, as long as there are regular check-ups on the algorithms and a few audits here and there, the tech companies shouldn’t have to pay any financial penalties.
All of which leads to a natural question: What happens next? We’ve tried grassroots movements to clamp down on the big social media companies. We’ve tried appealing to government regulators to take more forceful action. And we’ve tried the legislative approach. And nothing really seems to work.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to profits. The big tech companies don’t want to change their business models because they care about profits. They don’t want to “waste” money on reforms. And they certainly don’t want to pay out huge financial penalties as part of highly public lawsuits (which will only encourage more lawsuits).
So here’s an idea: maybe the only step that will force them to change their ways is to find new social media platforms that are actually supportive of children. Only if we leave the old social media platforms en masse will they get the message.