California Goes After Social Networking

Last week, the California Senate voted down a measure (SB 242) that would dramatically regulate social networking sites and – moreover – the First Amendment rights of their users.  But the bill’s sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Ellen Corbett, is making a last ditch effort to push it through before the legislature’s Friday deadline.

Sen. Corbett’s bill would forbid Californians from joining social networks until accepting or altering strict default privacy settings that display only a user’s name and city.  It would also require the sites to pull any information about a user at their request, or at the request of a parent if the netizen is under the age of 18.

For years, public policy sought to enshrine First Amendment principles online and shied away from regulating the Net. Yet, Senate Bill 242 runs afoul of the Internet’s free speech tenets. For one thing, it infringes upon even the limited First Amendment rights of California teenagers, whose parents could delete their account lest the social network pay a $10,000 fine for noncompliance. Enforcing the bill would also require online age verification that is not yet effective and easy for minors to subvert, something courts noted while striking down the federal Child Online Protection Act. In order to separate minors from adults, the law would effectively require adults to verify their age, which is also considered a violation of free speech rights.

The bill also takes on a myopic view of the Internet. Social networking – and the web more broadly – is by its nature a borderless space. This wouldn’t be the first time California sought to subject its residents – and every company serving them – to different online standards. In 2003 the state enacted the Online Privacy Protection Act that forced websites – even those without servers or a footprint in the state – to make privacy policies more conspicuous. However, Sen. Corbett’s measure pushes the regulatory burden well past this point to an unacceptable degree, effectively forcing web companies to create California-specific versions of their sites or subject every user to California’s standard. It also ignores the nature of information redistribution on the web. Profile info re-posted on another non-social networking site not covered by the bill surely couldn’t be so easily removed.

For more info, check out Digital Liberty’s letter to the California Senate.