California Just Passed a Law that Will Destroy the Internet

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You know who I hate? “The children.” Not “children” in general – I actually think kids are great and the only reason I never had any myself is because I like money and sleep even more – but “THE CHILDREN,” like that nebulous group of victims who we must perpetually be concerned about saving from some imminent danger. Do you, an adult human, enjoy firing up the occasional joint? No! Think of the children! Do you, a person with a fully formed brain, want to say the word “fuckbucket” on YouTube for your audience of other people with fully formed brains? NO! Save the children! Do you think children should know that some other children have two daddies? ABSOLUTELY NOT! We must PROTECT THE CHILDREN from the forbidden knowledge! Even the children who have the two daddies! They can never know! One of the daddies must dress up as a mommy. WAIT NO, that will ALSO THREATEN THE CHILDREN! AHHH WHAT DO WE DO

Ahem. Anyway, a hot new way to save the children has just dropped here in California, and it comes in the form of a bill that was recently passed by the state House and Senate:  AB 2273, also known as the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act. For far too long, the internet has been a dangerous place for children to play, and this bill hopes to change that by forcing websites and services that might be used by anyone under the age of 18 – so, like, most websites? Maybe all websites, depending on how you interpret the bill’s use of the word “business”? – to establish the age of users with a “reasonable level of certainty” and enact stricter standards of privacy and safety, like not collecting location data or personal information from minors. Sites will also need to limit the use of “dark patterns,” which are NOT super cool satanic rituals but are sneaky ways that sites like TikTok get you to keep scrolling and scrolling and scrolling.

My family got internet access when I was around 12 years old and honestly the first thing I did was find chat rooms where I would talk to weird strange adults. Websites didn’t have measures like the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, so obviously I gave these strangers my home address, photos of me and my family, and my parents’ bank account numbers. My entire family was robbed and murdered several weeks later.

Just kidding! My parents limited my access to the internet and gave me good advice about not sharing personal information with strangers. Because as parents, that was their job: parenting me.

Look, I’m not trying to be all Libertarian all of a sudden: yes, there are evil companies and evil people who use underhanded tactics to manipulate marginalized, disadvantaged, and naive people, including children. And yes, the internet is now everywhere, and it’s become increasingly difficult for parents to monitor what their kids are exposed to online, especially for parents who are single and/or working full-time.

So there IS room for the government to offer those parents help in protecting their kids from nefarious actors online: they could offer, say, free childcare for parents who need it, or internet literacy classes to explain potential dangers and how to teach kids to be safe. But the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, sadly, isn’t going to help anyone, and it’s actually going to make a lot of things much, much worse.

The most glaring problem is the fact that websites must determine the age of every single user, if they think it’s possible that, say, a random 17-year old might show up. How do you do that? There are a number of ways, but all of them require the website to collect data on each user that they don’t necessarily want and the user doesn’t necessarily want to provide. Goodbye anonymity, goodbye checking things out in a private browser, goodbye to your personal data. Are you a pregnant woman in Florida seeking information about accessing an abortion? Are you a trans kid in Texas trying to get gender-affirming care? Well, to use any social network or website run by a “business” you’re going to have to verify your identity.

Proponents of this bill say that it won’t necessarily mean showing your driver’s license to every website owner – technology can help here, by having a third party verify your age from your driver’s license, passport, or other ID. That’s probably why a similar bill in the UK was avidly supported by MindGeek, the company that owns PornHub, RedTube, and YouPorn. Confused? Let me explain. As reporter Shoshana Wodinsky detailed quite well on Twitter, in the mid 2010s European countries started passing laws to “protect the children” from pornography, so MindGeek, owner of 70% of the streaming porn marketplace, created another company called AgeID, which allows users to upload their ID (or show it to a participating in-person retailer and receiving a code) to prove their age once and then be verified across various sites. MindGeek allows competitors to use AgeID which has effectively led to them controlling a monopoly in the age verification space. Oh, and not to worry you but AgeID’s privacy policy admits to them collecting tons of data on users, and MindGeek has experienced several high profile data breaches in years past, like in 2012 when a million YouPorn users were exposed (and not in the fun porny way).

So MindGeek already turned previous pornography blocks into a winning lottery ticket; if this California bill is signed into law, every major website will be looking for the easiest solution for them and their adult users to continue using their sites, and chances are that instead of building their own age-verification tool, they’re going to go with the only existing game in town: AgeID. 

To recap: in order to “save the children” of California from the internet, you, as an adult living anywhere else in the world, will need to give your personal information to a porn company that, I should mention, recently had to remove the majority of its videos because of suspected child sexual abuse. As unintended consequences go, this one was just too good to not share with you. I’ve seriously been so amused and horrified by this for the past few weeks that I couldn’t not make a video about it.

There’s a lot more that’s wrong with this bill: lots of undefined terms, draconian rules that will force website owners to do complicated surveys that they turn over to a committee, and the fact that owners who cannot comply will be forced to either shut down or treat all users as if they’re toddlers. To learn more, I highly recommend following Mike Masnick at Techdirt.
The good news is that as of this recording, Governor Newsom hasn’t yet signed the bill into law. He has the right to veto it, and so if you live in California you have a chance to save the internet: go to his little website (link is in the transcript, linked below) and fill out this form telling him to please veto AB 2273. You know, for the children.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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