Star Tribune lobbies against children’s online safety bill, saying it could bankrupt them

The bill would require companies like TikTok and Instagram to protect children’s privacy

By: - April 28, 2023 6:01 am

In this photo illustration, social media apps are seen on a mobile phone on July 29, 2020 in Istanbul, Turkey. T(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

Star Tribune leaders are lobbying Minnesota lawmakers against a bill intended to protect the privacy of children using apps and websites, saying the measure could bankrupt the Minneapolis newspaper.

The Age-Appropriate Design Code Act (SF2810/HF2257) would require big platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter to protect children’s privacy amid increasing concerns about harmful content. The bill passed the House Thursday as part of the commerce budget bill, which differs from its counterpart in the Senate and will go to a conference committee.

The bill would require businesses with websites and apps that children under age 18 are “likely to access” to put up guardrails around young users. Default privacy settings for children would have to be configured at a high level of privacy. Businesses would have to assess features that keep kids glued to the screen; limit the use or sharing of children’s personal data; and limit the collection of young users’ precise location.

Last week, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen was at the Minnesota Capitol promoting the bill, tweeting that Big Tech is “coming out in droves to squash” the bill “because they know it’s their product choices, not our kids or parents’ fault, that social media is harming our mental health.”

Last year, California passed the first online safety law of its kind — which a tech trade association is now challenging in court — modeled after a United Kingdom regulation. The same trade association, NetChoice, is opposed to Minnesota’s bill. The trade group represents companies like TikTok, Google, eBay and Meta, which is Facebook and Instagram’s parent company.

Under the Minnesota legislation, the attorney general could bring civil actions to enforce the law, with civil penalties of up to $2,500 per affected child for each negligent violation, and up to $7,500 per child for each intentional violation. That provision has the Star Tribune worried.

In a letter to lawmakers, Randy Lebedoff, Star Tribune senior vice president and general counsel, said the newspaper applauds the Legislature’s attempts to protect young people, but said the penalties could “easily bankrupt the Star Tribune.” With nearly a million Minnesotans between ages 5 and 18, one violation would cost the news outlet $2.4 billion, Lebedoff wrote. The Star Tribune would need to consider “radical measures” to limit its risk, she wrote.

Rep. Kristin Bahner, DFL- Maple Grove, chief author of the House bill and an information technology consultant, said the Star Tribune’s new CEO and publisher Steve Grove has been personally lobbying lawmakers.

“He’s been reaching out to various folks and we’ve been kind of going back-and-forth,” she said.

Grove declined comment and the Star Tribune declined to make anyone available to talk on the record.

Grove was named head of the newspaper about two months ago after serving as commissioner of the state Department of Employment and Economic Development since 2019. He worked at The Boston Globe and ABC News before leaving there for YouTube and becoming founding director of Google News Lab, which aims to help journalists become more innovative in the face of social media companies crushing their advertising revenue.

A trade group representing 2,000 publishers lobbied for change to the California legislation, arguing it could require newspapers to make expensive changes like requiring age verification for online readers or creating different versions of stories for children, according to the New York Times.

The Senate Judiciary and Public Safety Committee held an informational hearing on the Minnesota bill Monday, during which Casey Mock of Minneapolis — a former Amazon employee — testified that Big Tech companies are using a carefully coordinated, fear-based strategy to try to dissuade lawmakers from passing bills that could cost them money.

They sow fears that the legislation is unconstitutional, fund a lawsuit (as in California) and then warn lawmakers in other states that the constitutionality of the law has been called into question. He called that a procedural tactic dressed up as substance.

“I call that bullying,” he said.

After Mock testified, a parade of groups representing or tied to tech companies took turns testifying against the bill.

Amy Bos, director of state and federal affairs at NetChoice, the tech trade association, cited litigation over California’s law. She said the bill also violates the First Amendment.

Andy Kingman, representing the State Privacy and Security Coalition, which works on data privacy and cybersecurity and has ties to tech companies, said the bill is so broad it would affect nearly every website and app and require businesses to make choices about editorial content.

Jordan Rodell, state policy manager for the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said age verification would require businesses to collect more information on children, including where they live.

Jim Bernard, the Star Tribune‘s senior vice president of digital, testified on behalf of the newspaper and the Minnesota Newspapers Association. He said they don’t oppose the bill in general, but think it will have unintended negative consequences that hurt newspapers. The Star Tribune would have to reconsider providing information to young people to avoid the burdensome regulations and penalties, he said. The simple solution, he said, would be to exclude newspapers from the bill.

Sen. Erin Maye Quade, DFL-Apple Valley, said the bill is about data privacy, not content moderation. The goal is to ensure companies use the highest data privacy protocol for content likely to be accessed by children.

The social media companies, she said, aim “to keep you on it as much as humanly possible,” Maye Quade told the committee. “It’s why the people who designed a lot of social media apps do not let their children use them. Silicon Valley schools — where the children of these tech executives go — do not use devices in schools. They call it an in-person learning community.”

Sen. Michael Kreun, R-Blaine, said the bill “seems a little rushed to me.” Given it was just getting an informational hearing in the Senate committee, Kreun said he was concerned it would end up on the floor without being fully vetted by the Senate.

Bill author Bahner, who has worked in IT for over 20 years, agreed the bill “sort of snuck up on a lot of people quietly,” but she expects it to pass. She reiterated that news outlets aren’t the focus of the bill.

“We deliberately took the word ‘content’ out of the bill,” she said. “This bill has been very carefully crafted with the intent that it can be workable in every state in the union.”

She said it has a few minor tweaks from the California law.

“It’s the slightly new and improved version,” Bahner said.

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Deena Winter
Deena Winter

Deena Winter has covered local and state government in four states over the past three decades, with stints at the Bismarck Tribune in North Dakota, as a correspondent for the Denver Post, city hall reporter in Lincoln, Nebraska, and regional editor for Southwest News in the western Minneapolis suburbs.