Court blocks California’s online child safety law

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The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act probably violates the First Amendment.

California Governor Gavin Newsom

a:hover]:text-gray-63 [&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-black dark:[&>a:hover]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a:hover]:shadow-underline-gray [&>a]:shadow-underline-gray-63 dark:[&>a]:text-gray-bd dark:[&>a]:shadow-underline-gray”>Photo by Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A federal judge has granted a request to block the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (CAADCA), a law that requires special data safeguards for underage users online. In a ruling issued today, Judge Beth Freeman granted a preliminary injunction for tech industry group NetChoice, saying the law likely violates the First Amendment. It’s the latest of several state-level internet regulations to be blocked while a lawsuit against them proceeds, including some that are likely bound for the Supreme Court.

The CAADCA is meant to expand on existing laws — like the federal COPPA framework — that govern how sites can collect data from children. But Judge Freeman objected to several of its provisions, saying they would unlawfully target legal speech. “Although the stated purpose of the Act — protecting children when they are online — clearly is important, NetChoice has shown that it is likely to succeed on the merits of its argument that the provisions of the CAADCA intended to achieve that purpose do not pass constitutional muster,” wrote Freeman.

Freeman cites arguments made by legal writer Eric Goldman, who argued that the law would force sites to erect barriers for children and adults alike. Among other things, the ruling takes issue with the requirement that sites estimate visitors’ ages to detect underage users. The provision is ostensibly meant to cut down on the amount of data collected about young users, but Freeman notes that it could involve invasive technology like face scans or analyzing biometric information — ironically requiring users to provide more personal information.

The law offers sites an alternative of making data collection for all users follow the standards for minors, but Freeman found that this would also chill legal speech since part of the law’s goal is to avoid targeted advertising that would show objectionable content to children. “Data and privacy protections intended to shield children from harmful content, if applied to adults, will also shield adults from that same content,” Freeman concluded.

California has passed multiple bills designed to regulate online content, and challenges to others — including a suit filed by X, formerly Twitter, over a law governing how sites moderate hate speech — remain ongoing. But courts elsewhere have determined that several state-level laws are probably unconstitutional. In August, a different court blocked a law requiring age verification for online pornography, saying that it would similarly require invasive data collection and limit adults’ access to constitutionally protected speech. An Arkansas law restricting underage users’ access to social media was blocked the same day.

Less recently, the Supreme Court intervened to block a Texas ban on much online moderation, setting up a battle that could determine how much control states have over the internet. The Biden administration urged the Supreme Court to strike down the core provisions of that law and a similar one in Florida last month.

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