Social Media

Judge Blocks California Law Aiming to Protect Minors’ Activity Online

KeyBoard Hatespeech
Social media icons on keyboard. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

By Susanna Granieri

A federal judge blocked a California law on Monday that sought to require safeguards designed to protect minors online, the latest such state law barred from enforcement due to First Amendment concerns.

Judge Beth Freeman of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California granted a preliminary injunction in favor of NetChoice — a tech industry trade group whose members include Google, Facebook parent company Meta, and X, formerly Twitter, — saying the group is likely to succeed in its legal challenge to the law.

The California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (CAADCA), passed in September 2022 and set to go into effect in July 2024, prohibits online businesses from collecting minors’ personal information in a way that might be “materially detrimental to the [their] physical health, mental health, or well-being.”

NetChoice has argued that the law “expands government power over online speech under the guise of protecting children” and risks creating an environment in which constitutionally protected speech is restricted or censored.

In the filing, the judge identified potential First Amendment concerns and complications with the law.

“The Court finds that 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,” Judge Freeman wrote in the decision. “Specifically, the Court finds that the CAADCA likely violates the First Amendment.”

She appeared to agree with NetChoice’s assertion that the law would effectively render some types of content inaccessible.

“The materials before the Court indicate that the steps a business would need to take to sufficiently estimate the age of child users,” Judge Freeman added, “would likely prevent both children and adults from accessing certain content.”

The decision in California follows injunctions blocking similar laws in other states relating to underage users’ online activity.

An Arkansas law also opposed by NetChoice requiring parental consent for minors to create new social media accounts was blocked earlier this month by U.S. District Judge Timothy L. Brooks, who ruled that the state’s law likely violates the First Amendment.

“Age-gating social media platforms for adults and minors does not appear to be an effective approach when, in reality, it is the content on particular platforms that is driving the state’s true concerns,” Judge Brooks wrote.

In Texas, U.S. District Judge David Ezra blocked a law requiring age verification and health warnings for pornographic websites. Judge Ezra said the law was too broadly defined and “the restriction is constitutionally problematic because it deters adults’ access to legal sexually explicit material, far beyond the interest of protecting minors.”

NetChoice is involved in other legal battles in Texas and Florida, where conflicting rulings on the two states’ social media content moderation laws have sparked a debate that could land before the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will hear the two cases, but in January, the Supreme Court invited the Biden Administration to share its views on both laws. Last month, the Biden Administration urged the high court to hear the two cases and decide whether the two laws “comply with the First Amendment.” 

Sept. 18, 2023 — NetChoice v. Bonta, Preliminary Injunction Granted