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Morning news brief

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

TikTok has now offered its first glimpse of how they hope to overturn a law that could have the app banned in the United States in seven months.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department says it expects the law to survive the challenge. It's seen as one of the most important legal battles in the history of the internet in the United States.

FADEL: With me now is NPR's tech correspondent, Bobby Allyn. Thanks for being here, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Leila.

FADEL: So let's start with where things currently stand for TikTok.

ALLYN: Yeah. TikTok is in a very precarious situation. In April, President Biden signed a law that bans TikTok nationwide by January 19 unless it is sold to a non-Chinese buyer. This is because lawmakers and the White House fear the Chinese government could use TikTok as a spy tool or to spread propaganda to influence elections. Now, TikTok swiftly went to court to challenge the law, and the future of the app is really riding on the outcome of this case. And now, as you mentioned, we have TikTok's first major filing in the case. And there's a good amount of new detail in here.

FADEL: OK, say more about that. What are TikTok's lawyers arguing to the court?

ALLYN: Yeah. TikTok says the ban would be a First Amendment violation for the app's 170 million users in the U.S. They argued that, quote, "never before has Congress silenced so much speech in a single act." They've been saying that for a while, but there's also something new. TikTok's legal team for the first time revealed internal documents spelling out the behind-the-scenes negotiations the company has had with the Biden administration. And it includes a 100-page national security agreement that would have given federal officials oversight of TikTok's operations in the U.S., including the ability for American officials to effectively hit a kill switch on TikTok nationwide if it was ever considered a threat.

Now, you know, these documents are a big deal because they show that, you know, TikTok was really willing to go the distance to appease Washington's fears. But the Biden administration said, no thanks.

FADEL: Why is that?

ALLYN: Well, the Biden administration wouldn't say exactly why they walked away from the deal. But officials in the administration I've spoken to have said it's because anything short of complete separation of TikTok from its China-based parent company ByteDance was seen as a nonstarter. So, you know, for the White House, you know, severing ties completely from Beijing was the only thing they wanted, and TikTok wouldn't give that.

FADEL: OK. So let's take a step back here. Why are the stakes in this case larger than TikTok?

ALLYN: Yeah. They really are, Leila. I mean, this case could ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. And we haven't ever seen a case that tests the balance between free speech and national security on a massive social media app. If the ban is upheld, it could further splinter the internet, right? There would be one internet for most of the world that includes TikTok, and then a second internet in the U.S. that does not include TikTok. China's great firewall blocks many American internet services, but, you know, the U.S. has not done that to a major social media platform before.

FADEL: So what's next in this legal battle?

ALLYN: Yeah. Well, the Justice Department will respond. In a statement to me, the Justice Department said the law is constitutional, that the department has, quote, "consistently warned about the threat of autocratic nations that can weaponize technology." So that's a preview of what they're likely to argue. But experts say the focus will really be on what kind of hard evidence the Justice Department can muster, because so far, the case against TikTok has been hypothetical. And the appeals court that is hearing the case will likely be interested in what kind of proof the government has that TikTok is currently a danger to Americans.

FADEL: That's NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thanks, Leila.

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FADEL: The Los Angeles School Board has voted to ban the use of cellphones in the country's second largest school district.

MARTIN: LA school board member Nick Melvoin pointed to studies highlighting the harmful effects of cellphones in the classroom.

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NICK MELVOIN: They're surreptitiously scrolling in school, in class time. They have their head in their hands walking down the hallways. They're not talking to each other or playing at lunch or recess 'cause they have their AirPods in.

MARTIN: California's Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom is pushing to implement a statewide ban. And that's after Republican-led states such as Indiana and Florida have already put their own bans in place.

FADEL: With me now is Alyson Klein. She's a reporter for Education Week. Good morning, Alyson.

ALYSON KLEIN: Good morning.

FADEL: So banning smartphones in schools is one of those rare policies that Republicans and Democrats seem to agree on, but it hasn't always been a popular idea. So what's changed?

KLEIN: So I think during the pandemic, kids just had access to their tech 24/7.

FADEL: Yeah.

KLEIN: And many say that they're addicted to them, right? Kids get hundreds of notifications a day, a study by Common Sense Media found. And that can make it hard to focus, all those dings in class - right? - all that buzzing.

FADEL: Yeah.

KLEIN: And the same study by Common Sense found that nearly all students use their phone at some point during the day for about 43 minutes, which is about the same time - right? - as a class period. So they're spending about as much time gaming or watching YouTube or on TikTok as they are in chemistry class.

FADEL: So earlier this week, the U.S. surgeon general called for a warning label on social media saying it's harmful to kids' mental health. Is that part of why more schools want to ban cellphones, or is it mostly about kids paying attention in class?

KLEIN: So I think it's a mix of both. Yes, kids are obviously distracted in class. Although, there are some teachers who really don't want to see cellphones banned because they're using them as a teaching tool.

FADEL: OK.

KLEIN: Phones, though, are also changing how kids, like, socialize with each other. And you heard the LA school board member reference this. I had one principal tell me that there are days when his lunchroom is basically quiet, and kids are texting the kid across the table from them instead of actually talking to each other.

FADEL: Wow, OK, another form of communication. Has anyone figured out a good way to implement and enforce these restrictions?

KLEIN: So it's often up to teachers to enforce these bans, which really puts them in, you know, a tough spot with their students. It's kind of like playing Whac-A-Mole, right? They're just taking a phone away every minute. And back in 2015, New York City reversed its ban on cellphones because they found there were some really big equity issues. Essentially, the ban was being really strictly enforced at schools serving mostly low-income kids and not so strictly enforced at some of the wealthier schools. And there were even some local stores that were charging kids money to hold their cellphones all day so they could get it right after school. It really just got to be too much, so it'll be interesting to see whether LA has those same problems.

FADEL: And how are students and their parents reacting to these recent bans?

KLEIN: So a lot of parents want their kids to have their phone in school basically so they can reach them in case of an emergency. I talked to a superintendent one time who said a parent told her that she could take away her kid's phone once she started paying the family's cellphone bill, right? But in other cases, parents understand that this is about focusing in class. And it's important to say that these bans don't necessarily say you can't have your phone in school at all. Some schools require kids to keep their phone in their locker, for instance.

FADEL: Alyson Klein, reporter for Education Week. Thanks, Alyson.

KLEIN: Thank you.

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FADEL: It's summer, and if you're lucky, you may be booking a plane ticket or a car rental for vacation.

MARTIN: And when you click buy, sometimes an offer pops up for something called a carbon offset to reduce climate pollution. But how can you know that offset is doing what it claims?

FADEL: Joining us now to talk about this is NPR's Julia Simon. Good morning.

JULIA SIMON, BYLINE: Good morning.

FADEL: So, first off, what really is a carbon offset?

SIMON: I spoke to Danny Cullenward at UPenn about this. He says an offset is basically a promise.

DANNY CULLENWARD: It's a promise that somebody else did something good somewhere else that resulted in a climate benefit.

SIMON: It could be a promise that someone protected a forest that would've been cut down, or a promise that someone made a wind farm and switched from fossil fuels. The key promise being your money is actually reducing or removing planet-heating pollution, like that carbon dioxide pollution from your flight or your car rental. But Barbara Haya at UC Berkeley says there's a problem.

BARBARA HAYA: Most offsets don't represent what they claim.

SIMON: There are two big ways many offsets can be false promises. First, many offset projects overestimate their impact. For example, many offset projects that claim they're saving forests from deforestation, research finds many are getting money for forests that don't actually need protection.

FADEL: OK, well, that feels like a big problem, if your money isn't actually reducing as much climate pollution as the offset claims. What's the other issue?

SIMON: Something called permanence. Offsets are supposed to reduce or remove carbon dioxide pollution, right, the carbon dioxide? Some carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere hundreds of years, some CO2 sticks around even longer - thousands of years. Here's the thing. The vast majority of carbon offsets only promise to remove or store CO2 emissions for 40 years or less. Cullenward says a 40-year promise of reducing emissions does not compare to a 300-year or several-thousand-year impact of carbon dioxide.

FADEL: So if a lot of these are false promises, is the government doing anything to address these issues with offsets consumers and companies are buying?

SIMON: Late last month, the treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, announced new principles for high-quality carbon offsets. High quality, that is offsets that actually reduce or remove climate pollution. But researchers say even these new principles have gaps. For example, the principles do not identify how long offsets have to keep carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. No number. Also, these are just principles. Researchers worry without enforcement, these voluntary principles might or might not be followed. A treasury spokesperson said, though the principles released last month are voluntary, we believe they can help guide efforts to address the challenges.

FADEL: So then is there any actual accountability if a carbon offset company makes a climate claim that's false? Is there a way for consumers to take action or is there enforcement here?

SIMON: In California, there is a bill in the State Assembly right now. All those promises of climate benefits that carbon offset companies make, this bill would make those claims legally enforceable. Here's California State Senator Monique Limon, who introduced the bill.

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MONIQUE LIMON: So if that company knows that I'm not getting what I paid for and you paid for it, you can take them to court.

FADEL: OK. We'll see if that carbon offset bill becomes a law. That's NPR's Julia Simon. Thank you, Julia.

SIMON: Thank you, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.