Despite big misgivings about a proposal to regulate social media, a Utah Senate panel approved it anyway

SB198 is Sen. Mike McKell’s second attempt to rein in big tech.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Resolution sponsor, Sen. Mike McKell discusses SR1, during the Senate Business and Labor Committee meeting, which will limit media access to the Senate floor and committee rooms, at the Capitol, on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022.

Shortly after complaining that weighty issues were being given short shrift because of legislative time limits, the Senate Business and Labor Committee advanced a proposal to regulate social media, despite numerous members expressing extreme misgivings about the bill.

Sen. Mike McKell, R-Spanish Fork, renewed his quest to somehow rein in social media moderation practices for Utah account holders. Last year’s attempt, which allowed the state to seek monetary penalties if companies did not adequately explain why they removed or moderated a post, ended when Gov. Spencer Cox issued his first veto. McKell is Cox’s brother-in-law.

McKell has dramatically scaled back this year’s attempt, only requiring social media platforms to inform Utah account holders of their moderation practices and when those have been enforced.

Even that modest-sounding idea raised several objections.

Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, says he overcame his misgivings last year to vote for McKell’s bill. He added this year’s version still worries him.

“I’m quoting former President George W. Bush who said, ‘Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me, can’t get fooled again.’ I don’t want to get fooled again,” Weiler said

The proposal would use IP addresses to determine if a user was in Utah, but committee members pointed out that using a virtual private network (VPN) can hide that information.

“How are they supposed to track who is in Utah or not when people just log in and create an account without typically giving their address?” Weiler asked.

“I am not an internet expert, so I don’t know. That is definitely above my pay grade,” McKell said, adding that the issue would need to be addressed before final passage.

Several tech industry groups spoke against McKell’s bill, saying it wasn’t ready for prime time.

Elizabeth Converse, who represents Utah Tech Leads, a coalition of Utah technology companies, said those companies could not support the proposal.

“We greatly appreciate the effort to define content moderation and how it might harm people, but we are still deeply concerned about how the bill defines social media and what a platform is, so we are opposed to this,” Converse said.

It seemed McKell was the only one in the room who liked his proposal, but the committee advanced the bill to the full Senate anyway.

Weiler noted he was only voting for the bill so that he could speak against it on the Senate floor.

“I hate the fact that I feel like Facebook and other social media companies are constantly trying to put their finger on the scale of what’s right and what’s wrong. I hate that social media companies are constantly trying to censor what we’re capable of seeing. I don’t know what the solution is,” Weiler said.

Sen. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said the bill needs an overhaul, but he was still voting to move it out of committee.

“I’m really looking forward to this fight on the floor between Sen. Weiler and Sen. McKell. Maybe we’re moving too quickly through bills, but this adds some value from a voyeuristic standpoint,” McCay said.