POLL: Arkansas’ governor signs social media bill requiring age verification for new users

Governor signs measure aimed at verifying age of users

Rep. Jon Eubanks (left), R-Paris, answers questions as Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, look on at the state Capitol in Little Rock on Wednesday after Sanders signed a bill aimed at restricting children’s access to social media sites. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill into law Wednesday to require large social media companies to institute age verification checks for new users and require those younger than 18 to seek parental permission to open an account.

Sanders said the law, which was approved by the General Assembly last week, "is another step in protecting our kids" from the hazards of big tech.

The law, also known as the Social Media Safety Act, will require large social media platforms such as Facebook and TikTok to contract with third-party vendors to perform age verification checks. The legislation will apply only to Arkansas residents seeking to open a new social account after the bill takes effect Sept. 1, Sanders told reporters at a bill signing ceremony at the state Capitol.

To prove their age, adults will need to upload a digital copy of a driver's license or government-issued ID. Those younger than 18 will need permission from a parent or guardian before they can open an account.

"I think that anybody that looks around at what is happening and is satisfied with the status quo, frankly, you aren't paying attention to what is happening here in our state and across the country," Sanders said.

The law targets large social media platforms and exempts companies that generate less than $100 million in annual gross revenue. Also not required to do age verification checks for new users are email providers and companies that provide direct messaging services, streaming, online shopping, news, sports, entertainment websites or "other content that is pre-selected by the provider and not user-generated."

Also not included in the law are companies that provide services such as cloud storage, cyber security educational devices or "enterprise collaboration tools" for K-12 schools and derive less than 25% of their revenue from social media platforms. A social media platform, such as LinkedIn, "that provides career development opportunities, including professional networking," is also exempted.

As defined in the new law, a social media company is "an online forum" that allows users to upload, create or view content from others and allows users to "interact with other account holders or users, including without limitation establishing mutual connections through request and acceptance." Social media companies found to be out of compliance could be subjected to a $2,500 fine for each violation.

Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, the sponsor of the law, likened the age verification mandate to ID checks for buying cigarettes, alcohol, attending rated-R movies and voting.

"We can't continue to turn a blind eye and protect the profits of large social media companies over the protection of our children," Dees said. "And that's what this does today, it sends a clear message that we want to partner with parents and empower them to protect our children."

Larry Magid, president and CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit focused on educating parents about online safety and privacy issues, said the law is a "sledgehammer when a scalpel would be more appropriate." Magid said he shares Sanders' concerns about children and social media but contended requiring parental checks could be a concern for teenagers who may have absentee parents or feel socially isolated at home.

"We strongly recommend parental involvement," Magid said. "But simply having the state create a law that requires intervention or permission doesn't necessarily solve the problem."

Instead, Magid recommends the state encourage parental controls, built in to some social media platforms, to help manage their children's time online rather than create a structure where the children would need permission. Magid also said the law goes against the principles of free speech, saying there should be no age verification check to express a First Amendment right.

"There is a constitutional issue. The First Amendment does not say you have to be 18 years old to enjoy the access to speech," Magid said.

Antigone Davis, global head of safety at Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said the company already has tools in place aimed at protecting teenagers.

"We've developed more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including tools that let parents and teens work together to limit the amount of time teens spend on Instagram, and age verification technology that helps teens have age-appropriate experiences," Davis said in a statement. "We automatically set teens' accounts to private when they join Instagram, and we send notifications encouraging them to take regular breaks."

When asked how someone can be verified as a parent or guardian, Dees pointed to the tools and filters social media companies already have in place, which third-party vendors can use to confirm parental status.

"We've met with a lot of these third-party vendors and it's actually a very easy process to streamline," Dees said.

In a letter to Sanders, Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for NetChoice, a firm that represents Meta, Google, TikTok and Twitter among other large tech companies, urged Sanders to veto the bill, saying the requirement for new users to send their personal information to a third-party vendor could put their data at risk.

"The more information a website collects, the greater the risk of sensitive information getting into the wrong hands," Szabo wrote in a letter dated April 9.

When asked about whether a third-party age verification vendor could protect users' data, Sanders pointed to language in the law prohibiting them from retaining such data.

"This is one of the reasons why third-party verification is important, so that information is not going directly to social media companies," Sanders said. "There's also prohibitions on them using that data for anything other than verification."

Arkansas is not alone among states that have moved to place greater regulations on social media use for those younger than 18. In March, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox signed a pair of bills into law requiring age verification for users and a social media curfew for those younger than 18, where they will be prohibited from using social media between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

  photo  Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders signs a bill aimed at restricting children’s access to social media sites as Sen. Tyler Dees, R-Siloam Springs, looks on during a signing ceremony on Wednesday at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)