ILYA MARRITZ This is On The Media. I'm Ilya Marritz, in for Brooke Gladstone. Last week, Tiktok's CEO Shou Zi Chew became the latest tech executive to have his come to Congress moments.
TAPE Mr. Chew, you are here because the American people need the truth about the threat tick tock poses to our national and personal security.
ILYA MARRITZ Chew was grilled for over 5 hours by a House committee about tick tock relationship with the Chinese Communist Party.
TAPE You damn well know that you cannot protect the data and security of this committee or the 150 million users of your app because it is an extension of the CCP.
TAPE Tiktok’s source code is riddled with backdoors and CCP censorship devices.
ILYA MARRITZ The hearing was ostensibly about national security, but many of the questions ended up being about how Tik Tok also targets are children.
TAPE Tiktok's addictive algorithms recommend videos to teens that create and exacerbate feelings of emotional distress, including videos promoting suicide, self-harm and eating disorders.
ILYA MARRITZ And then on the same day as the Tik Tok hearings.
TAPE Utah has become the first state to sign legislation limiting access to social media apps by teens.
TAPE The law requires anyone under the age of 18 to get parental consent to join social media platforms. It forces those platforms to give parents access to the children's posts and messages, and it sets a social media curfew for minors. It's scheduled to go into effect next year.
TAPE In Utah, we’re done waiting for someone else to solve this problem.
ILYA MARRITZ Utah Governor Spencer Cox.
TAPE To the social media companies who have been reckless in protecting our youth. Utah parents are putting you on notice.
ILYA MARRITZ Utah's law made headlines because it's the first of its kind. But other states are also taking action.
TAPE Both sides of the California State House have passed a new bill to protect children online called the California Age Appropriate Design Code Act. Most people call it the kids Bill.
TAPE Same thing happening in New Jersey. Just this fear that maybe social media has gotten a bit out of control.
TAPE We already know the Minnesota Republican state representative who's going to drop her version of the bill come January.
TAPE Seattle schools are suing tech giants over social media harm.
ILYA MARRITZ Arkansas, Texas, Connecticut and Louisiana also have bills in the works. With its curfews and restrictions. Utah's law in particular has a distinct whiff of paternalism.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO If we think about the way that we legislate around issues with children, it's kind of inherently paternalistic, right?
ILYA MARRITZ Avi Asher-Schapiro is a tech reporter at the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO We don't let kids drink before a certain age. We don't let kids walk into a movie theater and see an R-rated movie. I've done a lot of reporting around how parents feel about social media, and I feel like there's a general frustration that a lot of parents have where they look around and they see all the ways that they're allowed to exercise some degree of control over their kids activities in the real world. But when it comes to the Internet, like, all bets are off. So on the one hand, yes, quite paternalistic. And if you think about parents who might be oppressive towards their children, of parents who have gay children who don't approve or this sort of thing, you can imagine all sorts of terrible ways that overbearing parents given more and more power to control their children's online activity. How this could have terrible outcomes. But you can also sort of to some degree sympathize with the parents out there who just want to be able to carve out some safe zone for their kids online. Right.
ILYA MARRITZ There's a second piece of the Utah legislation as well. And this part requires social media to not be addictive to children. It has to do with the hocus pocus that we always call algorithms and recommendations. And this seems like it would require pretty significant design changes on the part of the platforms.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Yeah, I mean, it strikes me as similar to sort of what happened in California, I think last year where there is the age appropriate design act. But then there was also this other twin piece of legislation, the social media platforms Duty to Children Act, which failed to actually in the face of very strong lobbying from the social media industry, which had been designed to sort of raise the bar of liability on platforms, which they couldn't demonstrate that they were taking steps to limit the addictive nature of their platforms towards children. They would basically be open to fines and lawsuits. Utah took the same tact. These twin legislation, one trying to impose some affirmative obligations on the platforms, and another to try to open up avenues for private rates of action, for people to sue the platforms if they didn't meet a certain bar of reducing the addictive nature of their products. But we are in very new territory here. What does it mean for a platform to reduce its addictive qualities? We're beginning to see legislatures and the courts waiting to see if they could sort of untangle that.
ILYA MARRITZ I would imagine that these laws might also be open to legal challenges by some of the social media companies.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Over the next year, we're going to see a number of major legal challenges to these kinds of regulatory approaches. The California Age Appropriate Design Act is already being challenged in the courts. These age verification stuff. Honestly, I wish I knew how it would play out right. There's all sorts of very strange things that could end up happening. Like Louisiana passed this act 440, which required residence permit, like a driver's license for age verification to access adult websites, whatever that means, adult websites. And so this question is where is this age verification services going to happen If we're getting into the point where digital services are going to require to know exactly who is on their platforms all the time, and if they aren't certain of that, they could be opened up to some sort of legal liability. I think there are reasonable concerns about really incentivizing websites to even do more tracking of us online.
ILYA MARRITZ In February, you published an article about how some parents are suing tech companies, trying to hold them liable for their children's mental health problems. And some of these cases are very, very sad. The parents argument, as you write, can be seen as similar to earlier lawsuits against tobacco companies, where the plaintiffs basically were trying to show that cigarette makers knew their products were addictive and they knew that they were bad for people's health. So tell me about the Social Media Victims Law Center, which is a firm co-founded by veteran trial lawyer Matt Bergman.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Yeah. So this was, I thought, a fascinating encapsulation of American life here, where we have trial lawyers all over the country, many of whom cut their teeth, suing the asbestos makers, the tobacco companies. I've started to notice in the last couple of years that social media companies may be vulnerable to the same sort of attack in our legal system using product liability law and very robust tools within the American legal system to hold companies responsible for injuries that their products cause.
ILYA MARRITZ How many parents at this point do they have involved?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO They had signed up over 1200 clients, hundreds of cases that were being built, 70 cases involving child suicide. Over 600 cases that involved eating disorders. And this is just one firm. There is a bunch of firms doing this now, and there's actually consolidated litigation in California, where 80 similar federal lawsuits from over 35 different jurisdictions are being considered because they raise a bunch of similar legal questions.
ILYA MARRITZ One extremely sad example that stood out to me from your article was one in which a young person killed themselves.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO After the Roberts family's daughter died. They were able to get into her phone and find that on Instagram she had been served up content, kind of glorifying suicide, and that she, in fact, the method that she committed suicide, which was quite a kind of unusual method, that there was a video on Instagram that sort of demonstrated how to do that. And, you know, of course, we have Section 230 in this country which says that a platform cannot be held responsible directly for third party content. So Instagram did not create this video. They just hosted it. But the argument of these lawsuits is that certain design decisions that these platforms made in promoting this material and allowing it to thrive should open them up to liability. Even though they didn't make the video themselves. They are responsible for driving so much attention to the video and allowing it to stay up for so long and reach such vulnerable children.
ILYA MARRITZ From what I've read, there is a different Chinese version of TikTok that's also part of the Bytedance's family, Douyin, and it actually has more restrictions than we do here. For children under 14, there's a 40 minute usage limit. There's a curfew somewhat similar to what the Utah law calls for, where they can't use it at night. Are they having a similar conversation over there?
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO They had a big 60 minute segment on this.
TAPE In their version of Tik Tok. They show you science experiments you can do at home, museum exhibits, patriotism videos and educational videos. So it's almost like they recognize that technology is influencing kids development and they make their domestic version a spinach version of TikTok while they ship the opium version to the rest of the world.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO And I talked to some parents who saw it and seeing these battles they're having with their kids here, concerns they have about their kids and then hearing like, oh, in China.
ILYA MARRITZ They protect children in China.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Yeah, obviously that could be extremely frustrating. But the reason why the Chinese can do something like that is an expression of a very different political system. Chinese state is an authoritarian state. They don't have to have these arguments that we're going to be having in the wake of the Utah bill, where we are going to weigh the First Amendment concerns. And we are going to have the courts hear it out because we have a system of checks and balances and we can have it out in Utah.
ILYA MARRITZ There is this political will to do something right now. I'm wondering how much you think this is simply performative or is the will? Going to be there a year out, two years out, five years out. To actually craft good solutions based on what we are learning.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO This is a really, really weird moment and it's creating a lot of weird incentives and strange coalitions, right? You have a lot of popular anger at the tech industry, which is traditionally allied with the Democratic Party, which is leading to some regulatory proposals to reign in with big government. The power of the tech industry by Republicans who are typically very skeptical of heavy handed regulation but are perhaps being seduced by the siren call of populist politics. So you have a bunch of strange bedfellows. And I think, yeah, in the absence of any national privacy legislation or really any capacity in Congress to pass any laws of substance on these issues, you're going to have policy entrepreneurs, populist entrepreneurs all across the country coming up with ways to get their hands in this issue. And it creates a lot of strange alliances.
ILYA MARRITZ Avi Asher-Shapiro is a tech reporter at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Thanks for talking with us, Harvey.
AVI ASHER-SCHAPIRO Thanks for having me.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.