Your guide to California policy and politics
BY Emily Hoeven July 14, 2022
Presented by Health Net, California Water Service, Natural Resources Defense Council-Action Fund, and Agriculture Energy Consumers Association

Capitol bracing for social media showdown

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Sacramento is preparing for a showdown over how far the state should go in regulating social media companies that many blame for contributing to a national youth mental health crisis

At the center of the controversy is a first-in-the-nation bill co-authored by Republican Assemblymember Jordan Cunningham of San Luis Obispo and Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland that, in its original form, would have allowed California parents to sue large social media companies for harms caused by addicting kids to their products. 

But, following ardent opposition from the tech industry and concerns from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, that clause was removed. Under amendments made public on June 30 — the day before the Legislature embarked on a month-long summer recess — only public prosecutors, such as the state attorney general and county district attorneys, would have the power to bring civil lawsuits against social media giants for deploying designs or features they know will addict kids. 

Cunningham told me Wednesday that he doesn’t feel the proposal, which he described as “the most important bill I’ve ever worked on,” has been watered down.

If prosecutors “were to prevail in court, the court would issue a statewide injunction barring any company from deploying product feature XYZ, whatever it may be,” he said. “That doesn’t seem like a weakened bill to me, it seems like a different way to skin the cat.” 

But TechNet, a powerful lobbying firm that counts among its members Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, would prefer that the cat doesn’t get skinned at all. 

Dylan Hoffman, TechNet’s executive director for California, told me Wednesday that the group plans “to pursue every legislative avenue to try to stop the bill.” 

“We really don’t think that California should be joining the likes of Texas and Florida in trying to regulate online speech in this manner,” Hoffman said, noting that the bill would allow public prosecutors to sue social media companies over any feature they deem addictive, such as algorithms, push notifications, newsfeeds and continuous scrolling. 

  • Hoffman: “We don’t think that imposing liability in this manner is a good way to solve a really complex and difficult issue like kids’ mental health and access to social media. I think there’s better ways to do that, that don’t include burdening the First Amendment rights of online platforms, as well as users.” 
  • He added: The bill “is such an excessive and extreme measure that, you know, in our view, there’s nothing that can be done to change it or improve it.” 

That could signal a tough road for Cunningham’s proposal, given what he described as the sizable influence of “tech’s armada of lobbyists.”

  • Cunningham: “Republicans are generally … kind of allergic to lawsuits. And then the Democrats, a lot of them … are sort of enamored with Big Tech, for reasons I don’t fully understand myself. … Not that campaign donations ever influence any legislator’s vote, but, you know, Big Tech throws a lot of weight around.”
  • He added: “We have let a certain handful of giant social media tech companies conduct an unfettered social experiment on children. And the results are coming in and the data is very, very bad. … This stuff is affecting their minds, their brain chemistry, and in some cases, the worst ones, manifesting in physical harm” such as eating disorders, suicide attempts and severe depression.  

Cunningham said he’s “cautiously optimistic” the amended version of the bill will make its way to the governor’s desk and be signed into law. But, he said, “you really never know.”

The bill’s next hearing is set for Aug. 1, the day state lawmakers return to Sacramento.

Note: This item has been updated to reflect that TechNet does not include TikTok among its member companies.

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1 Lawmakers jet around the world

A view of Seapoint Beach in Dublin, Ireland on June 29, 2022. Photo by Artur Widak, NurPhoto via Reuters

Speaking of summer recess, what exactly do state lawmakers do when they aren’t in Sacramento? A common activity is embarking on trips funded not by taxpayers, but by special interests that lobby the Legislature — typically a combination of labor unions, corporations and trade associations. For example, after finishing the legislative session last year, groups of lawmakers jetted off to Portugal and Maui on trips sponsored by various interest groups. Another delegation of lawmakers went to Iceland this spring.

Here’s a look at what some groups are up to this summer:

  • The California Legislative Irish Caucus is headed to Ireland on Sunday, Cunningham told me during our Wednesday conversation. He said he hadn’t yet looked at the itinerary, but he thinks the pharmaceutical industry, which is prominent in Ireland, is a sponsor. “If you want to form good relationships, especially with people you don’t normally socialize with in Sacramento — which is an important part of being effective at the job — these trips are a venue for that,” he said. “The ones I’ve gone to over the years are super educational. … And so there is, I would argue, a public benefit to a lot of these as well.”
  • More information was not immediately available, but Assemblymember Patrick O’Donnell, a Long Beach Democrat, told me in a statement: “As the co-chair of the California Legislative Irish Caucus, I am proud to be participating in a bipartisan delegation trip to strengthen our cultural and economic relationship with Ireland. Ireland is one of the United States’ closest allies and economic partners. California and Ireland have many common industries such as pharmaceuticals, technology and film. I am proud to join my colleagues on this important trip to improve our trading relationships and expand business opportunities between Ireland and the Golden State. No taxpayer funds are being used for this trip.”
  • Another group of lawmakers is currently in Israel. Further details were not immediately available, but Erin Ivie, communications director for Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks of Oakland, said Wicks and a “handful of state legislators” are set to return to California today.

2 Newsom slams red states in D.C. speech

Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks at a press conference in Fontana on Feb. 17, 2022. Photo by Alisha Jucevic for CalMatters

Gov. Gavin Newsom is also currently out of state: He’s spending the week in Washington, D.C., where on Wednesday he received an award recognizing California’s financial investment in public education. The governor’s acceptance speech, however, was largely focused on decrying the approach to education in red states such as Florida and Texas and voicing concerns about the country’s direction — further fueling speculation he may be eyeing a presidential run in 2024.

  • Newsom: “Education is under assault in the United States of America. And we have an obligation, a moral and ethical obligation, to call out what’s going on as it relates to suppression of free speech. To call out what is happening in the United States of America in 2022, where a children’s book on (US Supreme Court Justice) Sonia Sotomayor needs to be banned. … Divorce is not optional. We’re all bound together by a web of mutuality. We’re going to share the future, whether we like it or not. We just have to define those terms.”
  • Newsom also called out Christine Pushaw, the press secretary for GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, for describing as “groomers” opponents of Florida’s bill banning schools from teaching young kids about gender and sexuality. Pushaw’s comment evokes the country’s “offensive” concerns in the 1970s that gay teachers were grooming kids, Newsom said.
  • That earned a clapback from Pushaw on Twitter: “Being gay has nothing to do with wanting to teach kindergarteners about sexuality and gender theory without parental consent. Why is Governor French Laundry implying it’s the same thing?”

Also Wednesday, Newsom discussed education with First Lady Jill Biden; said President Joe Biden should “unequivocally” run for reelection in 2024; revealed that he opposes UCLA moving to the Big Ten Conference, and announced that he plans to have lunch with Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday.

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