The New York Times Company is joining tech companies in an attempt to block a new children’s online safety law in California that the paper worries would damage its business and amount to censorship.
Last year, California passed the Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which aims to protect the privacy of children online through a host of requirements for major tech and media companies. The law restricts companies making over $25 million a year from collecting personal information and locations of children online, and adds a layer of compliance rules.
NetChoice, a trade group representing tech companies including Amazon, TikTok, Google, and Meta, quickly sued to block the law from going into effect, saying it violated the first amendment, and would force them to broadly censor content that could be deemed harmful to minors.
In an amicus brief filed in May in partnership with the Student Press Law Center, the Times said the law would also limit news organizations’ ability to make their content available to minors online. The company also said the vagueness of the law meant that state regulators could potentially punish news organizations that publish content that they deem inappropriate to be served to children.
“While the Act’s stated aim—to advance the welfare of children—is a laudable one, the Act does so in ways that are unconstitutional,” the Times wrote. “The Act would do real harm to the First Amendment rights of minors and to news organizations and should be enjoined.”
During a hearing late last month, the judge overseeing the case and tech group repeatedly used the Times as an example to test how the California law would work. In one particular exchange, the judge seemed to acknowledge that the law could restrict news content.
“The ultimate content is the content of the article itself, correct?” District Judge Beth Labson Freeman asked.
“The problem with the statute is the effect on what the New York Times will do. Will it publish an article about war that might be harmful? Will it now allow minors access to its site? You know, that’s the kind of decision that the Times will have to make,” the NetChoice attorney Ambika Kumar said.
The decision by the Times to side with the tech industry group in the case represents how the paper increasingly is not just a passive observer of major trends in the online media business, but a major player.
By suing in federal court, tech and media companies are hoping to get in front of a wave of new child privacy laws that they say would damage their businesses. California isn’t alone: Oregon, Connecticut, Maryland, and Minnesota have all introduced legislation similar to California’s new child privacy law.
The wave of laws has clearly alarmed leaders at the Times, who are concerned that state lawmakers are not thinking through the serious ramifications of the laws. One source familiar with the conversation told Semafor that the paper recently participated in an off the record briefing with Maryland lawmakers to discuss the consequences of a similar law currently being debated by legislators in the state.
As written, the California law seems vague. As the Orange County Register points out, the law empowers state regulators to force websites to remove content that they deem “materially detrimental to the physical health, mental health, or well-being of a child,” but does not define what constitutes harm. The Times said it would likely force the paper to enact age verification standards and essentially block teens from reading the news.
Room for Disagreement
Jim Steyer, a former Stanford law professor whose organization Common Sense Media has played a key role in writing and advocating for stricter childrens’ data privacy rules, said the Times is misreading the law, and offered to brief New York Times lawyers.
“This is an unfortunate day for the vaunted New York Times,” the Common Sense CEO said. “We would never sponsor a bill that would do what the Times is saying. This is a possibly well-intentioned but ill informed reaction to the statute.”
He continued: “This is showing that the Times is increasingly a tech company, business-wise, and reflects their increasing coziness with big tech. I understand it, but it does not necessarily lead to good outcomes when it comes to kids.”
- The California law is part of an intensifying regulatory effort clamping down on online kids data collection by big tech companies. Amazon settled a lawsuit last year for $25 million after the federal government sued the company for retaining sensitive personal information about children.