Censorship, Privacy, & UT SB152: An Interview with Sen. Riebe

Censorship, Privacy, & UT SB152: An Interview with Sen. Riebe

Graham C
Graham C

There’s some seriously disturbing news coming out of Utah, something that we strongly feel merits your attention. In case you haven’t already heard, here’s a summary: Bill SB 152 has created a legal framework that removes the digital privacy rights of minors. The law “requires a social media company to provide a parent or guardian access to the content and interactions of an account held by a Utah resident under the age of 18” as well as explicitly gives parents or guardians permission to set usage time limits.

This new law is a serious violation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of speech and expression. The practical effect of this bill is that residents of the state of Utah who are underage have lost their right to expression without undue influence. Under the new law, legally speaking, parents could compel their children by use of police force to surrender their passwords. In a state with a notoriously poor track record for mental health issues in Utah teenagers, social media seems like an easy scapegoat.

To get some firsthand insight on the matter, I had the distinct honor of speaking with Senator Kathleen Riebe from Utah’s 15th district. She was one of the few Utah senators to vote against this gross invasion of privacy, so I wanted to hear a bit more about the bill from someone who was directly involved in the democratic process. If you’re curious to learn more, check out the full summary of votes and the text of the bill itself.

Can you elaborate on why you voted against UT SB 152?

I think in concept it’s a great idea, and I would love the ability to better monitor my kid's social media activity. Unfortunately, we have no way to enforce this bill. As a parent, I use other methods to turn off social media on my children's phones. If a parent wants to do that, it’s an easy fix. This is something that parents already have tools for, violates the First Amendment, and it’s unenforceable.
And another thing too, it’s like why would I want to give up my data to yet another third party?

Do you think this law undermines the First Amendment rights of U.S. citizens to access and share information online?

Yes, absolutely. In fact, the ACLU is preparing a lawsuit due to that fact. Honestly, it’s pretty unenforceable. I also find this ironic especially from “small government” Republicans. This needs to be a parent's decision, not the government’s.

Was the use of a VPN a point of discussion in this debate, as the law is tied to the IP address of the user?

I actually did ask that question because my son does that at school all the time. As a person who works in education, this is something I see all the time.  I know how kids use VPNs to access stuff they shouldn’t on school networks. The drafter of this bill does not have any idea about that kind of thing. Actually, I’ve gotten my kids a flip phone instead of a smartphone.

Does the state have any plans regarding the implementation of this system? Where is the data stored? Will it be outsourced to a third party for its creation?

I believe that it will go to a 3rd party. With all this debate about TikTok lately, I’m thinking: Am I really gonna give my driver’s license to TikTok? The answer is absolutely not!
There is not an answer yet for how this system is gonna work. There was a sort of similar previous bill that created a system where parents would self-report porn. Right off the bat, I said it’s gonna be unenforceable, you need massive tech infrastructure and investment to actually properly enforce something like this. It just doesn’t make any sense to me in any context.

There is specific language regarding required parental access for the minor user in question. Would you agree that this equates to saying that minors in Utah are not afforded digital privacy as a right until they come of age or get married?

Tangentially, this brings up other issues. In Utah, you can’t have access to abortion if you’re over 14. For kids that are aged 16-18, they get presented with a different set of Miranda rights. My point is: kids under the age of 18 obviously have different mental capacities than adults, but we don’t use that framework across the board when it comes to legislation.
There is a severe lack of continuity. What if a kid emancipates themselves up to 18 and buys their own phone. Will they be denied access to knowledge? We live in a digital world where information is moving insanely fast. As a consequence of laws like these, we’re putting low-income, disadvantaged people in a situation where they don't get access to knowledge that others do.

Am I to understand that there is no precedent to stop police from forcing minors to surrender their password?

Presently, that is correct. This kind of thing was discussed during the session, and there were NO answers to these types of questions.
As a legislator and teacher, out of principle, I don't create unenforceable rules. The unintended consequences of this are becoming clear, but we are putting people in situations where we don't already have the answers we should, which is really irresponsible.
Like I said at the beginning, in concept, I support the idea, but the reality is that it's not legally enforceable. The parents already have the technical capability to enact these sorts of controls without the government stepping in and intervening.

To be honest, I’ve been reading a lot more of these types of bills throughout my research process on these articles, and this is one of the most disturbing examples I’ve seen so far. It doesn’t take a wild imagination to see the implications of this. One of the things that I find most disturbing is the ease with which this system shuts out teenagers and young adults from public discourse. For example, despite its status as a private company, many government leaders use X (formerly known as Twitter) to communicate important information and press releases. By enacting this law, the Utah government is saying that having a well-informed young citizenry is not a priority for them.

Let’s also consider the potential effect on a teenager’s mental health. As I mentioned above, Utah is far from a leader in mental health issues among its youth, and it’s safe to say this type of thinking is a large contributor to that fact. Consider also that roughly 60% of Utah’s population identifies as Mormon (or Latter-day Saint). The Governor of Utah (Spencer Cox) is Mormon, as is the author (Michael McKell) of this bill, who happens to be the governor’s brother-in-law…

By the way, be sure to check out this zero-context tweet from Michael McKell 😂

You might be wondering what my point is in singling out the Mormon Church. It’s this: despite their official stance on political neutrality, they have unprecedented influence over Utah state legislation, which is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Former Utah legislator (and ex-Mormon) Carl Wilmers has spoken out publicly to inform people of what the situation really is.

To be clear, we aren’t here to debate the potentially destructive effects social media can have on the mental health of teenagers. That’s another conversation that absolutely needs to happen. Our issue is the fact that this bill strips away digital privacy rights for young adults and could set a very dangerous precedent.

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Graham C
Graham C