Judge blocks California law meant to increase online safety for kids

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A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked an online child protection law in California and said it probably violates the Constitution.

Under the law, known as the California Age-Appropriate Design Code, digital platforms would have to vet their products before public release to see whether those offerings could harm kids and teens. The law also requires platforms to enable stronger data privacy protections by default for younger users.

U.S. District Court Judge Beth Labson Freeman granted a request Monday by the tech trade group NetChoice for a preliminary injunction against the measure, writing that the law probably violates the First Amendment and does “not pass constitutional muster.”

The initial ruling deals a massive blow to state lawmakers, who passed the law with broad bipartisan support last year, and to children’s safety advocates, who touted the measure as one of the strongest children’s online safety laws in the United States. Lawmakers in several other states have since pushed to replicate the standards, modeled after regulations in the United Kingdom.

NetChoice, which counts Amazon, Meta and Google as members, sued to block the law in December, arguing that tech companies have a right under the Constitution to make “editorial decisions” about what content they host or take down and that the law would turn platforms into “roving censors of speech on the Internet.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post. Interim Post chief executive Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)

“We look forward to seeing the law permanently struck down and online speech and privacy fully protected,” Chris Marchese, who leads NetChoice’s litigation efforts, said in a statement.

Monday’s ruling is the latest in a string of recent defeats for children’s safety advocates in the courts. Last month, two federal judges temporarily blocked laws in Arkansas and Texas that would require some online service providers to verify users’ ages and to get parent consent to access social media platforms or adult content.

The office of California Attorney General Rob Bonta (D) said it disagreed with Freeman’s ruling.

“We are disappointed by the decision and will respond in court as appropriate,” the state Office of the Attorney General said in a statement.

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