Will California Social Networking Bill Stall Online Innovation?

By Kenna McHugh Comment

NetChoice reports that proposed California legislation (S.B. 242) that was considered Tuesday by the California Senate Judiciary Committee would impose restrictive curbs on existing and future social networks. The curbs will have damaging implications extending far beyond legislators’ intentions.

“The bill’s sponsors started out with the noble goal of protecting children, but recent amendments transform the legislation into a bogeyman that will scare away innovation,” said Steve DelBianco, executive director of NetChoice. “The current proposal will create a major regulatory minefield for social networking services while failing to provide meaningful protection for minors.”

NetChoice is an Internet watchdog group with such members as AOL, Ebay, Yahoo!, Oracle and VeriSign.

From reading the information, it looks like the old bait and switch tactic. As recently amended, S.B. 242 would go far beyond its stated aim of protecting children.

The bill would chill free expression by requiring social networks to remove any statements about an individual that include their picture, video, or place of employment (regardless of age) upon that individual’s request. This move would eliminate social networks’ new-found power to generate positive social change and open public debate.

The bill would affect social networking websites that knowingly serve minors with specific safeguards and educational guidance. For fear of lawsuits, these websites may stop asking the age of new users and offering specific measures to protect minors.

Under S.B. 242’s definition of social networking sites, even school-run social websites would be subject to new restrictions and huge civil liabilities. Websites run by high school sports clubs, higher education student aid forums and online health information providers would all be subject to automatic penalties of $10,000 for every technical violation of the law. The threat of legal action could easily lead to the elimination of these free public services.

“Combining mandatory penalties with loosely worded legislation that attempts to manage the future of Internet innovation is a recipe for disaster,” said DelBianco. “In their rush to protect children, we must demand that legislators craft targeted solutions that provide meaningful protection without unjustified restrictions on Internet innovation and free expression.”

I support less regulation and believe in the good faith of our social networking companies to mandate their own rules or offer their own educational guidance for their users. As a matter of fact, just this week Facebook came out with a user guide for parents and children.

I tried to track down the results of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. NetChoice representative was not available, but I spoke to the Judiciary Committee representative. It looks like S.B. 242 was voted out of the committee and is headed back to the Senate floor for amendment votes. It will be interesting to watch this bill and see if it passes or not with the current language.

NetChoice is an advocacy organization that fights threats to online commerce and promotes policies that protect Internet innovation and communication on a state, federal and international basis. The Washington, DC-based group protects Internet commerce-driven competition and battles rules that hinder consumer choice and hurt small businesses.