More than 200 bills died in the state Legislature two months ago, when the Senate and House Appropriations Committees stashed them away in a “suspense file” — but there’s actually no suspense involved. For now, these bills are dead, no matter how positive or how needed they may have been.
Among those at least temporarily dead: A bill forcing all government agencies to keep public records including emails for at least two years, a cap on insulin copays for diabetes patients, a phaseout of plastic packaging from online retailers and a proposed requirement for gun owners to buy liability insurance.
All of these were good bills, with positive public policy goals. But the most serious sudden death hit a measure known as AB 2408, which could have fined as much as $250,000 per misdemeanor on high-tech companies that knowingly make children addicted to their content.
That’s different and even more important than a new law passed that now prohibits online services from selling children’s personal information or location.
There is no doubt that social media like Facebook, Tik-Tok and Instagram have been doing all these things continuously for years. But the new law is not enough; it still allows companies to get kids hooked on their content.
It’s an undeniable fact that big tech outfits like Facebook, which owns Instagram, use algorithms to mine information about users and have been selling that information to advertisers for years.
The preamble to AB 2408 even cited internal Facebook research showing that the company knows “serious harm is happening to children” who become “less connected to family and school” the more they depend on Instagram and similar social media.
This is achieved with targeted videos and messages that appear 24/7 with endless scrolling designed to keep users on a particular website.
The bill’s preamble also notes that girls are more likely to become screen addicted than boys, and that girls who say they consistently use social media are more than twice as likely as boys to become depressed, which can lead to suicide.
The bipartisan bill to stop this deliberate extermination of American children would not have applied to start-ups, but only to companies with revenues over $100 million a year.
The need to limit this commercial exploitation of naive youth passed the Assembly and a Senate committee without dissenting votes. Co-sponsored by Republican Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo and Democratic Assemblywoman Buffy Wicks of Oakland, it seemed a sure thing for passage because of its obvious necessity.
But then someone pulled the plug without so much as a vote in the Senate Appropriations Committee, after intense lobbying by an outfit called TechNet, made up of tech company CEOs and senior executives. Said their spokesperson, “We are pleased that this bill will not go forward in its current form. If it had, companies could have been penalized for simply having a platform that children have access to.”
Of course, that was not entirely correct. The use of algorithms aimed at commercial exploitation of children would have had to be proven in court for a fine to be assessed, so simply being available to children would not be a crime at all.
It’s hard to see why this bill suddenly derailed, just as it didn’t make sense to allow government agencies to continue destroying records in as little as 30 days, a time frame that allows them to escape the greatest public scrutiny.
In an administration that prides itself on its transparency, it is hard to see why such a short timetable would be allowed to continue.
But no explanation is needed when proposed laws are stuck in the suspense file, and there was none from Democratic Sen. Anthony Portantino of San Dimas, the Appropriations Committee chairman.
The obvious need for restrictions on the electronic exploitation of children over the Internet makes it almost mandatory that this bill be revived immediately when the Legislature reconvenes in a few weeks.
Failure to pass anything like this year’s bill, or for Gov. Gavin Newsom not to sign it into law when it eventually reaches him, would amount to child abuse.
Email Thomas Elias at email@example.com.