Social media addiction bill fails in California Legislature

California lawmakers on Thursday rejected a proposal that could have forced some popular social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok to pay fines for using features they know can harm children.

The bill would have let the state attorney general or other local prosecutors sue social media companies for up to $250,000 per violation for knowingly using features that can cause children to become addicted to their products.

It was one of the most watched pieces of legislation in California this year, as it could have forced social media companies to make broad changes that would affect users across their platforms.

Supporters said rules were necessary to protect children from companies who turn a blind eye to the harm caused to children’s mental health when they become addicted to social media platforms they say are designed to manipulate their developing brains.

California’s influential tech industry worked for months to defeat the bill, arguing it would do little to improve child safety while causing social media companies to ban all children from their platforms.

“As we’ve said from the start, protecting children online is a priority but must be done responsibly and effectively,” said Dylan Hoffman, executive director for California and the Southwest of TechNet, a group of technology CEOs and senior executives that opposed the bill. “We’re glad to see that this bill won’t move forward in its current form. If it had, companies would’ve been punished for simply having a platform that kids can access.”

Thursday, the bill failed to pass a key legislative committee, the final step required before a vote could happen in the state Senate. It’s not clear why the bill didn’t pass. It had passed the State Assembly and other legislative committees earlier this year without a dissenting vote.

State Assembly member Jordan Cunningham, a Republican from San Luis Obispo and the author of the bill, blamed its demise on the committee chair, Democratic state Sen. Anthony Portantino. His office did not respond to an email requesting comment.

“I am extremely disappointed,” Cunningham said. “The bill’s death means a handful of social media companies will be able to continue their experiment on millions of California kids, causing generational harm.”

The bill was a casualty of what’s known in the Legislature as the “suspense file,” a list of bills that must first be vetted by the powerful appropriations committees before they can proceed in the Legislature.

After weeks of public hearings, on Thursday the appropriations committees in the state Assembly and state Senate voted on 814 bills in just a few hours, with no discussion or explanation. When it was over, 612 bills advanced while 202 were held in the committee, essentially killing them for the year, according to Chris Micheli, a veteran lobbyist who tracks the committees’ actions.

Other defeats included a bill by Democratic Assembly member Marc Levine that would have required all state agencies to retain public records for a minimum of two years. Carmen Barber, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, said the irony was lawmakers used “the most undemocratic tactic” to kill the bill by shelving it “without explanation or a vote.”

A bill that would have capped out-of-pocket costs for insulin at $35 also failed to pass at a time when state officials are planning to make their own brand of the medication in an attempt to keep costs down.

“The decision by Assembly Democratic leadership to hold the bill blocked meaningful relief for millions of California residents struggling to pay for the rising cost of insulin,” said Republican state Sen. Patricia Bates, the bill’s author.

But other high-profile bills made it through, including one by Democratic State Sen. Scott Wiener that would decriminalize possession of some hallucinogenic drugs. The bill had been delayed last year, but is now likely heading for a vote in the State Assembly before the end of the month.

Lawmakers have until the end of August to pass bills this year. Among the votes expected over the next few weeks include legislation aiming to make it easier to build housing on commercial sites, a new tax on the sale of guns and ammunition and a bill that would let legislative staffers form a labor union.

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