Minnesota lawmakers need to pump the brakes before they break the internet
This year, a similar situation is playing out in Minnesota, where, in an effort to protect children online, lawmakers are pressing forward with legislation that they have been warned might in fact do just the opposite. A bi-partisan sponsored bill to prohibit the application of algorithms used to select which content to share with users under 18 is quickly making its way through the Minnesota legislature. While nearly all Americans can agree that it is absolutely critical for companies to take additional steps to protect youth online, the state’s approach is shortsighted in that it aims to restrict companies from using the very tools they rely on to keep their users safe.
As state lawmakers introduce proposals to crack down on so-called “big tech,” behind the scenes leading digital services are investing millions of dollars each year into the ongoing research, development, and deployment of tools to keep their users out of harm’s way. For example, Twitter recently announced plans to expand its “Safety Mode” feature, which will offer users improved mechanisms to combat harassment and harmful content. Last month, Instagram launched its “Family Center,” a new tool to provide parents with more supervision and control over their childrens’ accounts. Snap just announced new policies to protect users from receiving anonymous messages and implemented age-gating restrictions to protect young users. All of these services are made possible by the effective use of algorithms.
If there was any doubt prior to the pandemic, there can be no question now that the Internet is fundamental to the modern economy. It’s crucial that digital services continue to devote resources toward developing mechanisms to protect vulnerable users. Perhaps more importantly, the tools that tech companies create today will pioneer technology and know-how for firms of the future. If this bill were enacted, it stands not only to strip away the mechanisms that digital services currently use to keep users safe, but to discourage leading technology firms from investing in ongoing research to combat emerging online threats in the years to come.
As we’ve learned from Florida and Texas, acting on an impulse is not the right answer and will likely lead to unintended consequences. It’s time for state legislators to put a pause on knee-jerk legislation and work alongside stakeholders and industry experts to identify practical solutions to protect users online.