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California Politics: The latest attempt to regulate social media

A woman holds a young girl in a room filled with people
A bill by Democratic Assemblymember Buffy Wicks, seen with her daughter in 2018, would require that social media sites delete photos and videos of minors upon their request, among other protections.
(Rich Pedroncelli / Associated Press)
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How much responsibility do social media platforms bear when people use them to sell kids a deadly dose of fentanyl, pay teenagers to livestream strip teases or recruit minors who are sold for sex?

Those are questions I expect California lawmakers to grapple with this year as they embark on their latest effort to regulate social media. The debate will play out amid deliberation at the U.S. Supreme Court over whether federal law shields platforms from liability for manipulating what users see.

After a failed effort last year to pass a sweeping measure to allow more lawsuits against social networks for harm caused to children, lawmakers have come back this year with bills that take a more targeted approach.

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They’re focusing on some of the most frightening uses of apps many teens report using “almost constantly.” One bill by Sen. Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley) would hold social media companies liable for promoting the illegal sale of fentanyl to youth and targeting them with providing content that could result in eating disorders or suicide.

Another being introduced today by Assemblymember Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland) would require that sites permanently delete photos and videos of minors upon their request, and also allow lawsuits against social media platforms for features that facilitate commercial sexual exploitation of minors.

“The current legal system isn’t protecting our kids,” Wicks told me.

“It’s something we have to tackle. I know they don’t want to be held liable for what happens on their platforms, but as any parent knows, we have to take more action. What we’re doing is not working.”

The action in Sacramento comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments next week in a case that will test the legal boundaries for regulating social media. The case stems from the death of 23-year-old Cal State Long Beach student Nohemi Gonzalez, who was killed in a terrorist attack in Paris in 2015. Her family sued Google, alleging the company should be liable for supporting terrorism by creating algorithms that recommended Islamic State videos to YouTube users.

At issue in Gonzalez vs. Google is whether a federal law that shields online platforms from liability for their users’ posts also protects them when they make targeted recommendations, such as serving up videos based on users’ interests. The case could upend the legal framework for regulating social media across the country, and at the heart of it are a California company and a California family.

Hi, I’m Laurel Rosenhall, The Times’ Sacramento bureau chief. You can read more about California’s latest attempt to regulate social media in this article I wrote.

Now here’s the rest of the week’s news in California politics:

Feinstein makes it official

Anyone paying attention to California politics over the last few months could see it coming, and this week Sen. Dianne Feinstein made it official: She’s retiring.

At age 89, the oldest U.S. senator who also blazed trails for women during more than 50 years in politics announced that she plans to serve out the rest of her term but not run for reelection next year.

Retirement of California’s longest-serving senator marks the end of an era, and sets up an epic contest to replace her. Already, two members of Congress — Democratic Reps. Katie Porter and Adam Schiff — have launched campaigns for Feinstein’s seat. Others, including Rep. Barbara Lee, are considering it. Here’s a look at who’s in and who’s out along with some other potential candidates, wild cards and long shots.

Feinstein made history many times over during her boundary-breaking career. She rose to power after two of her colleagues in San Francisco City Hall were assassinated, and went on to become the first female mayor of San Francisco and the first woman senator from California. She led on environmental protection and gun control policy, and is now the longest-serving female senator in American history. I’ve really enjoyed looking through these historic photos marking key moments in her career — be sure to check them out.

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And here are some takes and memories from Times opinion writers:

Affirmative action ban at issue in student funding fight

Decades after California voters approved a ban on affirmative action, Gov. Gavin Newsom is citing the state law as a hindrance to giving schools extra funding to support Black students, writes Times reporter Mackenzie Mays. But some civil rights advocates are pushing back, saying Newsom has otherwise been willing to take on a legal fight for causes he is passionate about, including gay marriage and gun control.

Groups including the NAACP and Al Sharpton‘s National Action Network asked the governor for state funding to go specifically to Black public school students, who consistently fare worse academically than their peers. What Newsom offered in his state budget after meeting with advocates, though, does not mention race. Instead, his proposal directs more funding at the state’s poorest schools and adds accountability requirements for low performing students.

At a news conference Thursday at a Sacramento-area school, Newsom said that although he is unafraid to “push the envelope,” this time is different because the conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to end affirmative action at colleges.

“We’ve looked at it. We’ve pushed. I assure you,” Newsom said. “We’re trying to do our best in a very difficult and challenging environment.”

Read more in this article about the conflict that highlights California’s long-standing failure to ensure that Black students learn and perform at rates similar to their peers, even a decade after overhauling education funding to direct more money toward helping disadvantaged students.

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Keeping up with the Capitol

Editorial: Of course the California attorney general’s wife shouldn’t oversee his budget

A flurry of news stories in recent days exposed the questionable appointment of Assemblymember Mia Bonta as chair of a budget subcommittee that will recommend funding for the state Department of Justice, which is run by her spouse, Atty. Gen. Rob Bonta. The right response would have been an immediate mea culpa from those involved in the selection and a promise to remedy the apparent conflict of interest, writes The Times’ editorial board. But instead, Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon chose to gaslight those who raised concerns.

Fearing return of dry conditions, Newsom seeks to waive environmental protections in delta

As January’s drenching storms have given way to an unseasonably dry February, Newsom is seeking to waive environmental rules in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in an effort to store more water in reservoirs — a move that is drawing heated criticism from environmental advocates who say the action will imperil struggling fish populations.

California Democrats propose $25 minimum wage for health workers

New legislation backed by labor unions would mandate a statewide $25 minimum wage for health workers and support staffers, likely setting up a pitched battle with hospitals, nursing homes and dialysis clinics. The bill by Sen. María Elena Durazo would require health facilities and home health agencies to give raises to many support employees, including nurse technicians, housekeepers, security guards, food workers and laundry providers.

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Free from fees? California bill combats ‘junk’ fees for everything from concert tickets to groceries

California lawmakers introduced legislation aimed at fighting hidden or “junk” fees for everything from concert tickets to groceries. The bill by Democratic Sen. Bill Dodd would prohibit companies from hiding mandatory fees that have become common in the travel and entertainment industries, leaving buyers facing exorbitant and vaguely defined “service fees” or “convenience fees” when checking out.

California bill would ban police dogs from arrests and crowd control, citing racial trauma

Democratic Assemblymembers Corey Jackson and Ash Kalra have introduced a bill that would ban the use of police canines for arrests, apprehensions and crowd control, saying officers have long targeted and brutalized Americans of color with police dogs.

California’s biggest environmental cleanup leaves lead contamination and frustration

California’s largest and most expensive environmental cleanup has failed to properly remove lead pollution from some homes and neighborhoods near the notorious Exide battery recycler in southeast Los Angeles County, leaving residents at continued risk. Six years after the California Department of Toxic Substances Control embarked on a massive remediation effort around the shuttered Exide plant, numerous homes targeted for cleanup have been left with concentrations in excess of state health standards.

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Skelton: Rains and flooding leave claims of California drought high and dry

This winter, Newsom has continued to declare that the state’s in a drought even while proclaiming regional flood emergencies. This just seems contradictory and confusing, argues columnist George Skelton. How can there be a simultaneous drought and flood?

Leaving prison for many means homelessness and overdose. California hopes to change that

Californians who leave prisons and jails soon will have a better chance of success beyond bars. In January, California became the first state permitted to provide some benefits under Medicaid (known here as Medi-Cal) to incarcerated individuals as they prepare to leave prison, including services like substance use treatment and mental health interventions that would continue after they’re out.

California considers legalizing cannabis cafes to help struggling marijuana industry

The legislation by Democratic Assemblymember Matt Haney would legalize the sale of food and nonalcoholic beverages at cannabis retailers and lounges, and allow them to host live performances. Marijuana retailers say their businesses must expand to survive, but similar legislation died last year amid opposition from health advocates concerned about the dangers of secondhand smoke.

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