Testimony from:
Josh Withrow, Fellow, Tech & Innovation Policy, R Street Institute

In OPPOSITION to HB 254, “An ACT Concerning Consumer Protection – Social Media Regulation and Safety for Children.”

February 28, 2023

Maryland General Assembly

Chairman C.T. Wilson and members of the Economic Matter Committee:

My name is Josh Withrow, and I am a fellow for technology and innovation at the R Street Institute, which is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, public policy research organization. Our mission is to engage in policy research and outreach to promote free markets and limited, effective government in many areas, including the technology and innovation sector.

We are concerned that HB 254—in an attempt to protect minors against real harms that they may encounter on social media—may impinge upon the right of platforms to allow anonymous speech and the right of parents to decide appropriate safeguards for their children online.

HB 254 requires that “large social media platforms” be able to ascertain whether any “unauthorized minors”—defined as users under the age of 13—are on their platform and to immediately delete all their posted and received content once such a determination is made. Most qualifying online platforms already ban users under the age of 13, but the penalties the bill prescribes for not knowing that a user is underage would obligate platforms to pursue active age verification measures instead of self-verification.

Such age verification would necessarily require all users of a covered platform—adult or child—to prove their age, with the state attorney general left to determine what sort of verification would meet the bill’s requirements. A recent poll from the Center for Growth and Opportunity showed 60 percent of Americans oppose giving their ID to access social media, and 68 percent oppose handing over their child’s ID.[1] Meanwhile, the technological means to verify age without violating user identity or privacy are frequently intrusive and imperfect, such as facial scans or other biometric feedback.[2] In part because of the burden it would pose to any user’s ability to speak anonymously, mandatory age verification has previously been held to be an unconstitutional restriction on online speech.[3]

Also concerning is that section 14-4505 can be read to allow any parent or guardian to have co-access to their child’s social media account, with the ability to request access to their sent and received posts at any time. Depending upon how this section is read, it seems to pre-condition minors’ access to social media upon the permission of their parent or guardian, which may run afoul of constitutional review.[4] In any case, forcing parental access to all of their children’s social media communications may be beneficial in some circumstances, but harmful in the case of a controlling or abusive household, and should not be the legal default for teen access to social media.

Acknowledging the real harms that can come to minors from exposure to toxic content and behavior online, the approaches taken by HB 254 are constitutionally troublesome and likely to cause as many new problems as they solve. Thus, we urge opposition to HB 254.

Thank you for your time,

Josh Withrow
Fellow, Technology & Innovation Policy
R Street Institute
(540) 604-3871
[email protected]

[1] Taylor Barkley, “CGO Tech Poll: Executive Summary,” The Center for Growth and Opportunity, Feb. 13. 2023. https://www.thecgo.org/research/tech-poll/#children-and-social-media.

[2] “Online Age Verification: Balancing the Privacy and the Protection of Minors,” Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), Sept. 22, 2022. https://www.cnil.fr/en/online-age-verification-balancing-privacy-and-protection-minors.

[3] Reno v. ACLU, 521 U.S. 844 (1997). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/521/844.

[4] Brown et al. v. Entertainment Merchants Assn. et al., 564 U.S. 786 (2011). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/564/786.