New York state has passed legislation banning social media firms from using algorithms to recommend content to underage users, as debate continues to rage in Australia over online age verification.

The Stop Addictive Feeds Exploitation (SAFE) for Kids Act was passed by the New York parliament late last week with bipartisan support, and now awaits final signature from the state’s governor, who has also supported the Act.

The bill serves to ban social media companies from presenting algorithmically-generated content to users under the age of 18, which it dubs “addictive feeds”.

Instead, tech firms would have to present reverse chronological feeds to its underage users.

It defines an “addictive feed” as one that recommends, selects or prioritises content based on information garnered from a user or their device.

To continue using these algorithms, social media companies will have to show they are using “commercially reasonable and technically feasible methods to determine that the user is not a minor” or that it has obtained consent from the underage user’s parent.

The New York Attorney-General will now be tasked with developing the rules and enforcement mechanisms for these new rules, including how consent will be obtained and what methods of age verification may be used.

Once it is in force, which will happen 180 days after the rules are set, social media companies will be given 30 days to correct a violation before facing a fine of $7,500 ($US5000) per user under the age of 18.

New York Governor Kathy Hochul welcomed the passage of the “transformative legislation”.

“New York is leading the nation to protect our kids from addictive social media feeds and shield their personal data from predatory companies,” Hochul said.

“Together, we’ve taken a historic step forward in our efforts to address the youth mental health crisis and create a safer digital environment for young people.”

The bill’s passage was led by New York Attorney-General Letitia James.

“Our children are enduring a mental health crisis, and social media is fuelling the fire and profiting from the epidemic,” James said.

The bill had included a provision preventing social media platforms from sending notifications from children between midnight and 6am, but this was removed.

New York also passed the New York Data Children Protection Act, which blocks tech firms from the collection and selling of personal or location data of users aged under 18, without their consent.

Lobbying by the tech giants

Some of the largest tech firms in the world have railed strongly against the legislation, spending at least $1.5 million on lobbying efforts against the two bills.

NetChoice, an industry representative group including Meta and X, labelled the New York bills as an “assault on free speech and the open internet by the state of New York”.

A number of civil and digital rights groups have also criticised the provisions.

Fight for the Future director Evan Greer said that “strong privacy and antitrust legislation” should be pursued instead.

“The courts have actually been very clear that we can regulate the commercial surveillance practices companies engage in, we can regulate specifically harmful business practices like autoplay and infinite scroll,” Greer said.

“What we can’t do is put the government in charge of what young people can and can’t see online.

“That’s when it becomes about content and that’s when you run into the First Amendment.”

Australian crackdown

The regulation of social media, particularly around child users, has been in the spotlight in Australia recently, too.

The federal government recently provided funding for a trial of the use of age verification technologies to block children from accessing online pornography and other age-restricted content.

In Parliament last week, a number of Opposition MPs pushed for this trial to go further and use identity checks to prevent people from posting anonymously on social media.

In response, government MPs labelled this idea “dangerous” and a threat to the privacy of all Australians, as it would require users to hand over identity documents to social media firms such as Facebook and TikTok.