More than 200 bills died in the state Legislature two months ago, when the Senate and Assembly appropriations committees stashed them in a “suspense file” — but there’s actually no suspense involved. For now, those bills are dead, no matter how positive or how needed they may have been.
Among the at least momentarily dead: A bill forcing all state agencies to retain public records including emails for at least two years, a cap on insulin co-pays for patients with diabetes, a phaseout of plastic packaging by online retailers and a proposed requirement for gun owners to buy liability insurance.
All of those were good bills, with positive public policy goals. But the most egregious sudden death befell a measure known as AB 2408, which could have imposed fines of as much as $250,000 per offense on high-tech companies that deliberately addict children to their content. That’s different and even more important than a new law that did pass and now forbids online services from selling children’s personal information or location.
There’s no doubt that social media like Facebook, Tik-Tok and Instagram have continually done all those things for years. But the new law doesn’t do enough; it still lets companies get kids hooked on their content. It’s an unquestioned fact that big tech outfits like Facebook, which owns Instagram, use algorithms to mine information about users and have sold that information to advertisers for years.
The preamble to AB 2408 even cited internal Facebook research showing that the company knows “severe harm is happening to children” who become “decreasingly connected to family and school” the more addicted they are to Instagram and similar social media. This is accomplished with targeted videos and notices that turn up at all hours of the day and night using endless scrolling designed to keep users on a particular site.
The bill preamble also notes that girls are more likely to become screen-addicted than boys, and that girls who say they consistently use social media are more than twice as likely as boys to be depressed, which can lead to suicide. The bipartisan bill to stop this deliberate depredation of American children would not have applied to startups but only to companies with revenues topping $100 million a year. The need for restricting this commercial exploitation of naïve youngsters passed the Assembly and one Senate committee with no dissenting votes.
Co-sponsored by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham, of San Luis Obispo, and Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, of Oakland, it appeared a sure thing for passage because of its obvious necessity. But then someone pulled the plug without so much as a vote of the Senate Appropriations Committee, after intensive lobbying by an outfit called TechNet that’s made up of CEOs and senior executives of technology companies.
“We’re glad this bill won’t move forward in its current form. If it had, companies could have been punished for simply having a platform kids can access,” said their spokesman.
That, of course, was not quite correct. The use of algorithms directed at commercial exploitation of children would have had to be proven in court for any fine to be assessed, so simply being accessible to kids would be no offense at all.
It’s difficult to see why this bill was suddenly derailed, just as it made little sense to allow state agencies to continue destroying records in as short a period as 30 days, a time frame that allows them to escape most public scrutiny. In an administration that brags about its transparency, it’s difficult to see why such a short timetable would be allowed to continue.
But no explanation is needed when proposed laws are stuck in the suspense file, nor was there an explanation from Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino, of San Dimas, the Appropriations committee chairman. The obvious need for limits on the electronic exploitation of children over the Internet makes it almost mandatory for this bill to be revived immediately when the Legislature reconvenes in a few weeks.
Failure to pass something very like this year’s bill, or for Gov. Gavin Newsom not to sign it into law when it eventually reaches him, would amount to child abuse.
Thomas Elias can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read more of his columns, visit californiafocus.net online.