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Get the latest coverage of the 2024 Florida legislative session in Tallahassee from our coverage partners and WUSF.

Critics say Florida’s proposed social media ban for children is unconstitutional 

A man holds an iPhone 12 with the social media tab open on the screen.
Geo Gauvin
Under the measure, companies could gather personal identifying information to prove someone’s age. But they wouldn’t be able to retain or share it.

Florida lawmakers are gearing up to pass a new proposed ban on social media accounts for many children. Opponents say the proposal’s age-verification requirement is unconstitutional. 

Florida’s proposed social media regulations for children would require anyone who sets up an account to prove they’re old enough to use the platforms.

“What this is doing is essentially requiring ID for the internet,” said Carl Szabo, an attorney with NetChoice, a tech association that represents Meta and TikTok and has lobbied against the proposal.

The legislation would ban social media accounts for children under 14, require parental consent for 14- and 15-year-olds and require platforms to use third-party companies to conduct “anonymous age verification,” which Szabo describes as an “oxymoron.”

“It can't be done anonymously, so that’s kind of a nonsensical statement,” he said.

Lawmakers introduced the proposal last week after Gov. Ron DeSantis vetoed a measure to limit the age of account-holders to 16 years old. The vetoed legislation, and the updated version, include an “anonymous” age-screening requirement, which would force social media users to share “personal identifying information” before accessing the platforms.

The Senate passed the new version this week. It’s now awaiting a vote in the House, where it’s expected to pass. DeSantis described the new legislation as “superior” in a letter that accompanied his veto of the earlier version.

“Governor DeSantis used his veto power to kill an unconstitutional bill,” Szabo said. “And like a zombie, it has come back to life.”

Under the measure, companies could gather personal identifying information to prove someone’s age. But they wouldn’t be able to retain or share it. The bill would also require privacy protections to keep people’s data from being stolen.

"It doesn't matter what the company is or is not allowed to do,” Szabo said. “The simple act of mandating something like having biometric information or a bank account to engage in speech, or to access content is in and of itself a First Amendment violation.”

State Sen. Erin Grall (R-Lake Placid) is sponsoring the legislation. Grall explained during a discussion on the Senate floor last month that there are many different ways that companies can verify someone’s age without using a government ID, but the bill doesn’t bar them from using official documents to screen people. And it remains unclear exactly what personal information people would have to share.

“A biometric scan of somebody’s face can basically let the platform know how old you are within pretty decent certainty,” Grall said. “There’s also zero-knowledge proofs, which generally enable users to upload some identity documents to privacy servers.”

Lawmakers updated the legislation’s wording in an attempt to protect people's identities after DeSantis expressed concerns about users’ privacy

“I am very much opposed to forcing adults to have to unmask themselves,” DeSantis said during a press conference last month.

“Anonymous speech is part of what built the country,” he said. “The Federalist Papers were anonymous.”

Efforts to make the age-verification process “anonymous” aren’t enough to make the bill constitutional, explained Aaron Mackey, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier foundation, a nonprofit that works to protect digital speech.

“You can't sort of make these cosmetic changes around the edges of what is fundamentally an age-verification scheme that is completely at odds with the First Amendment.”

Laws in Arkansas and Ohio that set age limits for social media access have been temporarily blocked by federal courts.

Mackey explains that’s partly because requiring age-verification could have a “chilling effect” on the speech of “people who don't want to give information and would like to remain anonymous” and “people who are worried about the fact that if you collect a bunch of private information about me, that's just one more vector for people to steal that data.”

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