State legislators in Utah and across the country appear to be leading the charge when it comes to passing new rules aiming to govern technology companies and particularly around issues like data privacy, children’s safety and content moderation.

Those state-level efforts come amid an ongoing stall-out of any meaningful congressional action, though numerous federal proposals have been under discussion for months and, in some cases, years.

But do new state-level rules on internet-based companies, whose operations span state and national boundaries, represent the best level of government to be engaging in oversight of technology platforms?

The answer is a resounding no, based on results from a new Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll. And Utahns are of disparate opinion when it comes to the more basic question of whether more regulation of tech companies is even a necessity.

When asked, “Do you think the government should increase, decrease or not change its regulation of technology companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google?”, 47% of poll participants said regulation should be increased, 12% believe it should be decreased, 28% said the current level of regulation should not change and 13% of respondents didn’t know.

When it comes to what level of government should determine how technology companies are regulated, the poll found 61% of those surveyed believe it is a federal government responsibility, 18% said regulation should fall to state government and 11% said that government should not play a role in regulating technology companies.

Partisanship appears to play a role when it comes to Utahns’ opinions about government regulation and technology companies.

The poll found 42% of respondents who identified as Republicans want to see more tech company regulation, compared to 58% of Democrats who participated in the poll.

And when it comes to who should enact new rules for technology firms, 50% of GOP poll takers believe it should be a federal government responsibility. That figure swells to 72% among Democrats surveyed in the poll. Of those who believe no government entities should play a role in tech regulation, 16% of Republicans supported that notion as did 4% of Democrats.

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A workman installs a Google Fiber conduit in Sandy on Tuesday, July 26, 2022. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

While Utah voters are solidly behind the idea of tech regulation falling on the shoulders of federal lawmakers, a report released late last year found state-level rulemaking was far outpacing new federal legislation.

The analysis by the University of North Carolina’s Center on Technology Policy found that states passed approximately 28 tech bills that directly related to platform regulation in the last two years.

According to the report, four states passed comprehensive privacy legislation and four passed significant content moderation bills. California passed a law governing children’s online safety, but few states have followed. In antitrust, several states considered bills regulating app stores, and New York and Minnesota considered sweeping overhauls of their antitrust laws, but none were passed.

Report authors wrote that state legislators are likely to continue to outpace Congress when it comes to enacting new tech-focused regulations.

“States will lead the development of technology policy in the United States over the next two years,” the report reads. “While Congress has struggled to pass legislation that would reform governance of the technology sector, states have already succeeded in changing the rules on key issues like privacy, child safety and taxation.”

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel for tech industry group NetChoice, reviewed the Deseret News/Hinckley Institute poll results, noting Utahns’ overwhelming support of tech regulation being a federal government responsibility. Szabo said NetChoice strongly supports that stance and is one of the issues the group has been working for years to advance.

Jacob Chidester loads boxes into a truck at Amazon’s new delivery center in American Fork, Utah.
Jacob Chidester loads boxes into a truck at Amazon’s new delivery center in American Fork on May 20, 2021. | Laura Seitz, Deseret News

“People come and go, moving in and out of different states and privacy protections should remain the same, no matter where they are,” Szabo said. “The internet doesn’t stop at the border of Utah, Colorado or any other state. It’s inherently national. If there’s going to be regulation of the internet it must be done by the federal government.”

Szabo said he understands the driving force behind the movement by state lawmakers when it comes to taking action on tech regulation issues. But he also believes the pace at which state legislatures can operate doesn’t always lead to the best lawmaking.

“I think (state) lawmakers are responding to the concerns they hear from their constituents,” Szabo said. “When it comes to state legislatures, we have over 10,000 bills a year, and sometimes the speed with which states can move can be a real detriment. Enacting legislation at that speed can come with incredible unintended harms.

“These are national issues that should be addressed at national levels.”

The Utah Legislature is considering a handful of tech-related bills this year, including proposals aiming to require age verification processes for social media operators and creating new legal liabilities for social media platforms, including a rebuttal presumption that “social media is harmful for minors under 16.” Under that proposed new tenet, if social media companies are sued for harm, they have to overcome that presumption by proving that their platforms are not harmful.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox also touched on the danger social media poses to kids in his State of the State speech last month. Cox said he supports Utah lawmakers working to prevent social media companies’ “reckless” data collection from children.

On the federal level, Utah GOP Rep. Chris Stewart introduced legislation to make it illegal for social media platforms to provide access to children under 16. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., filed a similar bill in the Senate.

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