It’s time to regulate the internet, but are limits legal?

Photo credit: Divyashree Shrestha

Most people who grew up with the internet have taken part in an online challenge at one point or another. I remember as a young kid, I decided to dump a freezing bucket of ice water on my head in support of a disease I had never heard of.

At the time it wasn’t a huge trend yet, but within months it would become the worldwide phenomenon of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and enable The ALS Association to increase research funding by over 180%. While I definitely supported the fight against ALS, I did the challenge because my other friends were doing it. I wanted to be a part of the internet trend, just as most people my age did. This trend was harmless, but many aren’t.

In 2008, the viral “Blackout Challenge” claimed the lives of over 30 young children, according to Women’s Health Mag. The challenge, which has recently resurfaced on TikTok, encourages children to choke themselves with household items until they black out.

Last week another challenge claimed the life of a 14-year-old boy in Worcester, Mass. Harris Wolobah was given a chip by a friend and was challenged to do the viral TikTok trend, the Paqui brand 2023 One Chip Challenge. The challenge dared participants to consume a singular chip created by Paqui that is flavored with the Carolina Reaper and Naga-Viper pepper. The website claims the chip doesn’t have a Scoville Rating (rating to measure spicy), but the peppers are two of the hottest in the world.

Wolobah left school early after fainting and died in the emergency room hours later. Wolobah had no pre-existing conditions and the cause of death is still unknown, but the chip has been recalled.

With this recent death, it is time to more closely examine how the internet is regulated regarding children. After researching proposed regulations and social media site policies, it is clear that internet regulation needs to increase. However, concerns of privacy and restriction of government overstep through the First Amendment pose a legitimate argument.

According to the US Children’s Online Privacy Act (COPPA), children aren’t allowed to sign up for social media apps until they are 13, and most sites claim to require age verification at sign-up. The issue is that apart from asking for the user’s birthday, most sites do nothing to verify age.

According to Axios, Snapchat, YouTube and TikTok, only require users to submit their birthdays and refuse to allow them to change their previously submitted birthdays. Meta, however, has been testing a new verification software for Instagram and Facebook that had a 96% success rate in catching teens who falsely state their age.

Aside from Meta’s software, which has yet to be widely adopted, these policies and verification methods are weak, and lawmakers are beginning to take notice. In April, Utah passed two laws requiring parental consent for teens to use social media apps, as well as in-app parental controls and time limits.

Many states followed in Utah’s steps, and now a bill called the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act has been proposed on the federal level.

According to CPO magazine, “the bill would require social media platforms to stop taking prospective users at their word and build in an age verification system that may or may not rely on people providing their government-issued IDs to websites.”

The bill is the correct next step in regulating social media platforms as it requires platforms to thoroughly and accurately verify users’ age, but there are many privacy concerns and legality issues.

Privacy advocates from the Electronic Frontier Foundation have claimed there is no way to enforce age verification besides requiring all users to submit a form of identification and that is a major privacy concern. There is no way to be sure what all this data from verification will be used for. “Once information is shared to verify age, there’s no way for a website visitor to be certain that the data they’re handing over is not going to be retained and used by the website, or further shared or even sold. While some age verification mandates have limits on retention and disclosure of this data, significant risk remains,” said a representative from the EFF.

EFF’s claims are backed by recent Supreme Court rulings and a Sept. 8, 2023, decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appeals court reprimanded the U.S. Surgeon General, CDC, FBI and White House for pressuring social media sites to regulate content relating to COVID-19 and the vaccine, holding that their actions were a clear violation of the First Amendment. So, on top of concerns about privacy, the government may not have the constitutional right to enforce a social media age verification law.

None of this should stop the fight to regulate social media. Legislation and precedent serve an important purpose, but are meant to be challenged by lawmakers, organizations and citizens as the world we live in evolves. Most Americans would likely be willing to give up some privacy rights if it meant protecting children. The fight to regulate the internet is an uphill battle that has just begun and is worth pursuing.

Ethan Mannello is a junior majoring in journalism with minors in political science and finance.