Senate passes replacement for vetoed social media bill

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The new legislation gives parents of 14- and 15-year-olds the call on whether kids can log in online.

The Senate has passed a replacement bill regulating social media use by minors. After a 30-5 vote, the measure now heads back to the House.

Days after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed legislation barring anyone under age 16 from most social media platforms, lawmakers brought new language to the floor giving more say to parents. Sen. Erin Grall, a Fort Pierce Republican, filed an amendment to another House-passed bill (HB 3) that would allow 14- and 15-year-olds to have social media accounts with permission from a legal guardian.

“We can’t stand by any longer and allow them, these companies, to own our children with this terrible content,” Grall said.

The bill passed in the Senate with stronger support than the legislation (HB 1) nixed by DeSantis, which cleared the chamber on a 23-14 vote. Five Republican Senators had voted against that bill. No Republicans voted against the bill this time.

The bill still has a total blanket ban for anyone under age 13, but federal law in place for 23 years already bars children age 13 and younger from having online accounts. DeSantis has noted that there is no genuine enforcement of that federal statute, so states should take on that responsibility.

Critics said the changes improve the bill, but ultimately still follow a wrong approach.

“My daughter was on social media around age 13, or even before,” said Sen. Tina Polsky, a Boca Raton Democrat.

“It should be up to me whether or not that’s an issue. I pay for a phone or computer or iPad, whatever the case may be, so I get to control that. For the government to come in and say, ‘No, we’ve decided the age is 14,’ I still think runs into all the constitutional problems we discussed, and the general issue of parents making the decision.”

The legislation imposes a requirement for social media platforms with addictive features to contract with a third-party vendor to verify the age of users. Grall stressed that the bill doesn’t prescribe a particular method to go about that.

The legislation has been a priority for Speaker Paul Renner, who said technology continues to improve that would allow age verification in a way that doesn’t violate users’ privacy rights. He noted that video software can be used to quickly verify users of a certain age, and other information can be gathered to help differentiate between ages of users close to the cutoff.

On the floor, some Senators pressed on how platforms can verify that parents giving permission to young users to open the account actually have the authority to do so.

Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Beach Gardens Democrat, raised concerns that bringing parental permission into the bill could actually expose them to legal repercussions.

“If my son bullies another kid on social media and they commit suicide, you don’t think that I’m going to be civilly liable?” Pizzo asked.

“I think you very much could be,” Grall said.

But she dismissed comparisons to when parents are held legally liable when their child shoots somebody or causes a car accident if children use a gun or vehicle without permission.

“Just because you buy your child a cellphone, does that mean that you’ve consented to their use to distribute pornographic material?” Grall said. “I would say that there’s an argument that you have not consented to that and therefore you are not responsible for that.”

Grall suggested that platforms already manage to obtain remarkable amounts of data about users’ lives and it’s ultimately not a major burden to ensure companies follow the proposed requirements.

“They have different tools which they use to verify, so they could use any of those tools,” Grall said.

The underlying legislation notably puts the same requirements on websites publishing pornography and other content deemed by the state as “harmful to children.”

Of note, social media companies and pornography publishers have raised concerns about laws in Florida and elsewhere imposing restrictions on websites rather than at the device level. Pornhub has shut down access in other states with age verification rules in place, and lawsuits have been filed in Utah and elsewhere challenging laws regulating when and how often children can use social media services like Instagram, TikTok and X.

Grall stressed that the legislation in Florida doesn’t single out specific platforms. Rather, it applies regulations based on features such as infinite scrolling and video auto play. It also only applies to platforms where 10% of users under age 16 use the service for more than two hours a day.

The House passed a version of HB 3 when it only applied to pornography sites. That means that the social media language added in the Senate will require the legislation to return to the lower chamber.

Notably, the legislation vetoed by DeSantis enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the House. That was passed last month on a 108-7 vote, with only Democrats voting against it.

“Something that has been lost in all of this, this is a bipartisan bill,” said Rep. Michele Rayner, a St. Petersburg Democrat who helped craft language in the House.

Jacob Ogles

Jacob Ogles has covered politics in Florida since 2000 for regional outlets including SRQ Magazine in Sarasota, The News-Press in Fort Myers and The Daily Commercial in Leesburg. His work has appeared nationally in The Advocate, Wired and other publications. Events like SRQ’s Where The Votes Are workshops made Ogles one of Southwest Florida’s most respected political analysts, and outlets like WWSB ABC 7 and WSRQ Sarasota have featured his insights. He can be reached at [email protected].

One comment

  • Dont Say FLA

    March 4, 2024 at 12:58 pm

    State of Florida Social Media User Licensing Department will be coming to your local Publix sooner or later and I bet sooner.

    Social Media User Licenses will be automatically granted upon issuance of a driving license (for your convenience, of course), and new licensee information will be auto-provided to all social media companies “to keep our children safe”

    And come on, Paul Renner, you want to legislate based on technology yet to be found in common practice? Please! Legislatures normally run at least one decade behind technology being widely used in practice. What you’re saying is a confession that this law totally violates today’s privacy, but maybe somebody it won’t, so that’s Fine.

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