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Minnesota lawmakers tangled with tech giants over social media content for kids

One after another, lobbyists from groups with names like Net Choice, Chamber of Progress and TechNet testified at a hearing at Minnesota House. Then a rare thing happened in politics.

Republican and Democratic lawmakers have joined forces to oppose some of the marketing practices used by the companies behind the groups – Google, Apple, Amazon, Twitter and other tech giants.

“We can’t wait for the feds to act,” R-Maple Grove Rep. Kristin Robbins said during the hearing. “They’ve been saying they’re going to do something for too many years.”

As the battle with Big Tech shifts from Washington to the states, tech companies have found they have few friends in the ranks of state lawmakers, who are increasingly concerned about the polarizing effects of online platforms. social media and potential harm to children. Minnesota’s divided legislature is meeting on bills to curtail their influence this year, including a nationwide ban on social media platforms using algorithms to target user-generated content at children under 18.

The proposal sparked an intense lobbying effort from tech companies and their trade associations who raised the issue of possible free speech violations and argued that it could have the unintended consequence of keeping the positive content of children.

“Banning algorithms isn’t the answer, because it’s algorithms that allow online services to filter and downgrade inappropriate content and elevate and promote healthy content,” said Adam Kovacevich, founder of Chamber. of Progress, a trade group funded by technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple and Twitter. “That would be like saying we want cleaner drinking water, but then banning water filters.”

Social media algorithms sort posts based on a user’s data and activity to increase engagement, but they also send other content to users based on their activity.

Robbins, who is sponsoring the proposal in the House, said she was inspired to do something after reading a Wall Street Journal investigation into how algorithms fueled a stream of 32,000 weight loss posts. for two months for fake robot accounts posing as teenage girls. Bots that interacted with the content received even more of the same content via algorithms.

“I couldn’t sleep for about two nights, it was so disturbing,” said Robbins, who has three daughters. “They suck up all this data and use it to send more content to our children. It’s just to build the business model of these companies. Well, I have no interest in that. We as a state , we have an interest in protecting children.

Some researchers, parents and teachers have sounded the alarm about social media feeds and an increase in depression, anxiety and body image issues in children. Calls are mounting from Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and other federal lawmakers and the US Surgeon General for more transparency from tech companies about how they use algorithms.

Under Robbins’ bill, children under 18 in Minnesota would see content from their friends and others they have engaged with on social media platforms. They wouldn’t see user-generated content sent through algorithms, with a few exceptions. An exception includes algorithms that act as parental controls.

But the internet – especially social media – is run by algorithms, which have become a major revenue driver for tech companies. They argue that the proposal is far too broad and that there are already parental controls on many platforms.

“Throughout the Minnesota State Fair, it’s hard to find anything without butter or frying, but we don’t prohibit 16-year-olds from buying it, but that’s what we do. here for social media,” Carl Szabo said. , vice president of Net Choice, a trade association that represents dozens of technology companies. “We remove personal choice and responsibility.”

Despite opposition from tech groups, the bill authorized multiple committees in both houses with near unanimous support. Sen. Roger Chamberlain, R-Lino Lakes, is sponsoring the bill in the Senate and pushed back against tech groups’ characterization that the legislation will violate free speech rights. It doesn’t ban any content, he said, it bans algorithms.

“They know they could stop it, they know they can prevent it, they know there are exceptions. Any defense of that, in my view, is indefensible,” Chamberlain said. “It’s driven by families, parents, and 10 solid years of research, data, and first-hand experience that these kinds of things cause intentional harm to our children and our culture and we need to fix it.”

It’s a major next step in the push against Big Tech from lawmakers in Minnesota, which last year became the first state to establish an agenda to expand digital wellbeing education for kids.

For the second year in a row, Minnesota lawmakers are also proposing a bill that would prevent certain giant tech companies from requiring developers to use an app store exclusively or only use an in-app payment system. application, a proposal that has also gained traction in other states. .

For Rep. Zack Stephenson, DFL-Coon Rapids, the conversation is reminiscent of the debate lawmakers had in the 1970s and 1980s when trade groups testified that cigarettes weren’t bad for people’s health. He included Robbins’ bill in a broader set of regulatory consumer and commerce bills this year.

“It made me feel like someone was saying, ‘Man, you can’t ban kids from smoking cigarettes because then they won’t have the benefit of filters over cigarettes. It’s just a nonsense argument,” Stephenson said. “As a father of two young children myself, I’m very determined that we take corrective action before it’s too late.”

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