Less than a year from now, web designers may have to accommodate new strictures regarding privacy and user access to different kinds of content, at least in California. Last September, the state adopted a new law called the California Age-Appropriate Design Code Act, which is set to go into effect in July 2024. First, though, it will have to overcome legal challenges from the likes of Google, Facebook, and TikTok’s parent companies.

A big tech coalition known as NetChoice recently presented its argument to the US District Court for the Northern District of California. In so doing, it highlighted some of the ways in which web designers and their client companies could be adversely impacted if the law goes into effect as written. The judge in that case expressed sympathy with the argument in question, though she also emphasized that the CAADCA sought to advance “laudable goals.”

“This decision will not be out quickly,” said Beth Labson Freeman before reiterating that online businesses have nearly a year to prepare for either outcome.

The pending design code requires web designers to set up infrastructure to collect data which allows a website to make a precise estimate of each user’s age. Somewhat paradoxically, it also bars the same websites from retaining information that is not is not strictly necessary to the site’s function, or from using it for any purpose other than identifying a user’s age demographic.

In theory, this would lead to those websites extending additional privacy protections to users under the age of 18, as well as preventing them from viewing any content that is deemed inappropriate for minors. But NetChoice and Judge Freeman speculated that in practice, the CAADCA may set an impossible task for web designers, ultimately necessitating that the preemptively block all potentially sensitive content.

Lawyers for NetChoice have argued that this constitutes “prior restraint” and is a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech. California Attorney General Elizabeth K. Watson argued otherwise, noting that under the law, the government will not interfere with the types of content posted on websites and social media networks, but will only require that those sites and their web designers “create a plan about how they will reduce exposure” to certain posts.

Of course, as most web designers will surely attest, that is easier said than done. Although most internet users share an astonishing amount of data about themselves on a daily basis, the profiles created by that data are not always accurate, especially when they target people who use virtual proxy networks and other means of deliberately misleading data harvesters. Knowing this, some California web designers will no doubt conclude that the only way of remaining in compliance with the law is by assuming that all users of their sites are children.

In fact, at least where privacy is concerned, the CAADCA explicitly laws out this expectation. It states that if web designers fail to create systems that estimate each user’s age with a “reasonable degree of certainty,” then the privacy protections afforded specifically to children must be extended to all users.

It is not difficult to see why this may constitute an undue burden for some online businesses and some web designers. And considering that the estimates in question require a high degree of data-harvesting, the legislation may also ring alarm bells for some digital privacy advocates. In the interest of quickly establishing protections for children, the CAADCA may actually create new risks for all internet users in the long term, by effectively outlawing sites that provide absolute guarantees of user privacy unless those sites deal exclusively in “child-friendly” content.

Furthermore, this law may discourage California web designers from even cultivating the skills to provide those across-the-board guarantees. As such, if the law goes into effect, then anyone who wants to avoid all data-harvesting on their own website may wish to look for web designers from other tech hubs, such as Charlotte.