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California’s Injunction: ‘Addictive Tech Design Is Not Free Speech’

By incorrectly interpreting the definition of “free speech” and expanding it to encompass addictive technology design features, this injunction paves the way for potential dangers that could stall — or even reverse progress — in safeguarding the well-being of our youth, the Hill writes in an opinion piece.

The Northern District of California filed an injunction against the Age-Appropriate Design Code (AADC), stating it infringes upon the First Amendment. Last week, California Attorney General Rob Bonta filed a notice of appeal against the injunction, calling the court’s decision “wrong,” and saying California “should be able to protect [its] children as they use the internet.”

Unlike previous battles over privacy rules, design regulation is an area that is still in its infancy and in which tech companies have avoided any meaningful oversight. The linchpin of what makes technology addictive lies in its design: the endless scrolling, the intermittent rewards, the dopamine hits. These designs are crafted explicitly to keep users engaged, thumbs scrolling and eyes glued to screens. 

Yet, the Hill writes, such elements should not be conflated with free speech rights and must be distinguished by the court from content regulation, something not proposed or required by the Age-Appropriate Design Code. Setting a precedent now that equates these manipulative design features with First Amendment protections, would effectively disarm legislators from ever being able to protect children from the known harms of these platforms, the Hill opines.

We are faced with a daunting scenario: Do we prioritize the interests of tech corporations over the well-being and mental health of our children? To be clear, the First Amendment was crafted to protect freedom of speech, not manipulative and predatory designs. The Age-Appropriate Design Code’s unanimous passage was rooted in overwhelming evidence about the detrimental effects of unregulated technology on young minds. Numerous studies have drawn direct links between increased screen time and rising rates of anxiety, depression and even suicidal tendencies among youth. This concern isn’t based merely on external research; it’s backed by inside information. As highlighted by whistleblowers and investigative pieces like those from The Wall Street Journal, companies like Meta were fully aware that their algorithms were causing harm, especially to young girls. A pressing concern is the current opacity of how Big Tech runs its platforms. These conglomerates remain tight-lipped about the impacts of their products (which we know they know about through various product experiments that they run internally), which hampers not only parental decision-making but also scholarly research aimed at understanding and rectifying problems. The reason for this is clear, they know that once their actual internal knowledge of their harmful design comes to light, they will face liability and extreme public disapproval. 


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