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Utah governor replaces social media laws for youth as state faces lawsuits

FILE - Utah Gov. Spencer Cox speaks during a news briefing, Friday, March 1, 2024, in Salt Lake City. Cox, Wednesday, March 13, 2024, has approved an overhaul of social media laws meant to shield children from potential harms as the state fends off multiple lawsuits challenging their constitutionality. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah’s governor has approved an overhaul of social media laws meant to protect children as the state fends off multiple lawsuits challenging their constitutionality.

Republican legislative leaders announced at the start of this year's 45-day work session that they would prioritize revising a pair of policies passed last year that imposed strict limits for children wishing to access social media. Two bills signed this week by Republican Gov. Spencer Cox effectively repeal and replace those first-in-the-nation laws with language the sponsors say should hold up in court.

The new laws require social media companies to verify the ages of their users and disable certain features on accounts owned by Utah youths. Default privacy settings for minor accounts must restrict access to direct messages and sharing features and disable elements such as autoplay and push notifications that lawmakers argue could lead to excessive use.

Legislators have removed a requirement that parents consent to their child opening an account after many raised concern that they would need to enter an excess of personal data that could compromise their online security.

Parents can still obtain access to their children's accounts under the new laws, and they have grounds to sue a social media company if their child's mental health worsens from excessive use of an algorithmically curated app. Social media companies must comply with a long list of demands to avoid liability.

Cox applauded the Republican lawmakers behind the new laws for combatting what he considers “the plague that social media has unleashed on the mental health of our youth."

The revisions mark the latest move in a yearslong sparring match between Utah and social media giants TikTok and Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Several months after Utah became the first state to pass laws regulating children’s social media use, it sued both tech giants for allegedly luring in children with addictive features.

NetChoice, a trade group representing TikTok, Meta and other global social media companies, then sued Utah over its original laws in December 2023, leading legislators to rush through bills limiting their reach and delaying when they take effect.

Spokespeople for TikTok and Meta did not respond Friday to requests for comment on the new state laws.

Meanwhile, Congress is pressuring TikTok's China-based owner to sell its stake or face a possible U.S. ban. The House passed a bill on Wednesday that would give the company an ultimatum due to concerns that its current ownership structure poses a national security threat. The bill now heads to the Senate, where its prospects are unclear.

In Utah, social media companies will be prohibited from collecting and selling data associated with minor accounts, and the state’s Division of Consumer Protection will set guidelines for how those companies should verify a user’s age and identity without collecting too much personal data.

Beginning Oct. 1, companies such as TikTok will face another choice — impose a curfew on minors' accounts or have few legal defenses against families who say the app caused their kids harm.

The laws shift the burden of proof from the families onto the social media companies, requiring them to demonstrate that their algorithmically curated content did not fully or partially cause a child's depression, anxiety or self-harm behaviors. However, the laws give companies greater legal protection if they limit Utah minors' use of their app to three hours in a 24 hour period, require parental permission for kids to create accounts and set a statewide social media blackout for youths between 10:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m.

Companies will have to pay at least $10,000 in damages for each case of an adverse mental health outcome.

Cox also signed hundreds more bills this week, including several that the Republican sponsors said are intended to improve the safety of Utah children. Among them are bills funding firearms training for teachers and creating new legal protections for clergy members who report child abuse.