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Alabama’s HB167 risks economic setback with new tech regulations

The bill proposes that all mobile devices sold in Alabama must come equipped with an obscenity content filter.

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Alabama’s economic landscape has been transformed over the past several decades through strategic investments totaling billions of taxpayer dollars. The benefits of these investments are evident in the state’s daily economic activities. However, legislative missteps could swiftly undermine this progress, much like a mature tree can be quickly felled by a single ax. One such legislative measure raising concerns is HB167, which recently cleared the Alabama House of Representatives and is now awaiting deliberation in the State Senate.

The bill proposes that all mobile devices sold in Alabama must come equipped with an obscenity content filter, activated by default. This mandate aims to protect children and teens from harmful online content. However, the approach proposed by HB167 presents significant technological and legal challenges, along with broader economic repercussions.

From an economic perspective, HB167 could have unintended consequences, potentially deterring technology companies from doing business in Alabama. The added burden of complying with state-specific regulations could make Alabama a less attractive market for tech firms, potentially slowing the state’s recent advances in technological investment and job creation.

The concerns surrounding HB167 in Alabama and its implications for the state’s business environment highlight a nuanced challenge, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce.

Stefania Jones from the Alabama Department of Commerce Office of Governmental Relations expressed the department’s concern, saying, “We are absolutely in support of the intent of the bill, but we believe that this intent is already adequately addressed by House Bill 164, which the Governor recently signed.” Jones added, “Our stance, from a business attraction perspective, is that we do not want to send the wrong message to our businesses. It’s not just about taking a position; it’s about ensuring that we do not compromise the business-friendly environment that we are known for.” She continued, “House Bill 164 puts the necessary burden on content creators to prevent minors from accessing obscene content, which aligns with our commitment to protecting our youth while also respecting the First Amendment rights upheld by the Supreme Court. This approach avoids unnecessary civil liability for internet and device providers, which could deter potential business investments from major companies like Google and Facebook. We believe the burden should rightly remain on the content operators, not on the broad array of service providers, as we continue to declare Alabama open for business.”

Technologically, the bill’s requirements are nearly impossible to meet. Modern electronic devices are designed and manufactured to comply with national and international standards, not state-specific laws, as required by HB167. Implementing a state-specific activation system for content filters would require substantial changes in manufacturing and software design, processes that are both costly and complex.

Moreover, the bill overlooks the diversity of devices and platforms, from smartphones to laptops and from social media apps to email services. No existing technology can seamlessly filter all types of content across all these platforms. Additionally, the legislation does not account for the numerous commercial filtering solutions already available, which provide effective content management without necessitating state-mandated pre-installation.

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Legally, HB167 could face substantial hurdles. The definition of “obscene” content in the bill is broad and subjective, likely leading to legal challenges based on constitutional grounds. The bill’s mandate also raises significant privacy concerns, as it would require manufacturers to collect sensitive personal information such as age and location to enforce the filter—a substantial intrusion into personal privacy.

As the bill moves to the Alabama State Senate, it is crucial for lawmakers to consider these issues comprehensively. Protecting minors from harmful content is important, but it must be balanced with considerations of technological feasibility, legal soundness, and economic impact. Alabama’s legislative body should seek input from technology experts, legal scholars, and industry stakeholders to craft a bill that protects children effectively without compromising the state’s economic future or infringing on personal privacy.

While HB167’s intentions are commendable, its practical implications could be detrimental. Alabama must approach this issue with a strategy that utilizes existing technologies and respects both industry standards and privacy concerns, ensuring the state remains a thriving hub for technological innovation and economic growth.

Ultimately, HB167 risks stifling innovation and infringing on the rights of consumers under the guise of protection. A more balanced approach would acknowledge the capabilities and limitations of current technology and the enforcement methods of HB164.

State lawmakers are encouraged to tread carefully, ensuring their legislation does not become the ax that fells the tree of economic and technological growth they have so diligently nurtured.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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