Once again the US legislative branch is trying to protect the children, while allowing new privacy violating policies and practices that will ultimately hurt the youth's access to information. The Kids Online Safety Act is not new, and was introduced in 2022 by Democratic senator Richard Blumenthal. The bill was quickly sidelined by privacy rights groups, tech companies, and children's safety organizations who opposed the bills vague wording and feared unforeseen ramifications from one phrase in particular, "duty of care". Critics of the bill are concerned that placing a "duty of care" onto social media companies and other online platforms not exempt from the legal requirements will end up censoring certain content determined to be controversial or harmful by individual state legislatures. This could lead to information droughts in certain parts of the country where information related to LGBTQ+ medicine, self-harm, eating disorders, or suicide may become censored and unavailable to those who need it most.
This criticism sidelined the bill's progress, but it has been re-introduced with revisions and now has bipartisan support. Despite this political support there is still hesitancy from privacy and technological organizations which remain concerned about the possible censorship which may be smuggled through in the legislative process.
Criticism of the revised version of KOSA remains strong. The major point of concern is the persistence of vague language related to "duty of care" and the fear that this may lead to wider internet censorship as platforms scramble to try and create age-verification systems in order to comply with the new law. This push for compliance may lead to an overly aggressive moderation policy which could censor otherwise protected information and content. This censorship would likely spill over, not only impacting the internet activity of persons under 18 years of age, but also that of legal adults.
Although there have been changes to make sure that minors can access "resources" for dealing with the above mentioned topics, without creating strong definitions around the concept of "duty to care", legal interpretations can vary wildly. With a great deal of support coming from the political right, many LGBTQ+ activists see this as a potential threat and believe the law will be used to censor LGBTQ+ material more generally. This fear is legitimized by a tweet from the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, which shows that given the chance there are politicians who would seek to censor LGBTQ+ information and content.
Evan Greer, deputy director of the Fight for the Future digital rights group sounded the alarm against this bill citing precisely the concern that KOSA can be weaponized as a way of stifling LGBTQ+ voices. Greer claims that the bill is not about protecting the privacy of America's youth on social media platforms, if it were it would contain strong language calling out predatory data harvesting and tracking. This isn't about protecting privacy, it is about limiting what young people can view online.
By making small changes to keep social media platforms liable for harm caused by their platforms, KOSA tries to cast itself in a positive light when in truth it makes dangerous incursions on the First Amendment. Legal analysts from both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and TechFreedom assert that general blanket changes introduced to comply with the current "duty of care" language will ultimately lead to a digital band-aid being pushed as a cure for deeper, more complex and contextual issues within our society. The silencing of information does nothing to protect the children.
When faced with problems, local and global, censorship has never helped. Tipper Gore's attempts to silence musicians did nothing to stop inner-city violence, the Communication Decency Act's attempt to combat obscenity failed, and the Internet Safety Act's attempts to collect traceable user data never made it beyond the walls of Congress. Greer had some suggestions for keeping the best of KOSA while staying true to the values of the US Constitution:
"We have urged KOSA's sponsors to change the bill by removing the overly broad 'duty of care,' which is an inherently flawed model that gives the government too much power to control speech and replace it with strict regulations on how companies collect and use data... The First Amendment prevents the government from dictating what speech platforms can recommend to younger users, but we can absolutely ban companies from harvesting our kids' data and using it to recommend content to them."
If we want to protect young people we need to address the predatory practices of Big Tech companies which make the online behavior of young people the driving force of their profits. This is the reason tech companies design their apps to be addictive. This is the reason that shocking content is pervasive online. As long as the business model of tech companies demands clicks for advertising revenue these problems will remain.
Legislative attempts are going to cause greater harm to those already being commodified by social media companies. Censorship cannot solve these problems, but empathy and communication can. Being a teenager is not going to stop being difficult; being a parent or a teacher is not going to stop being difficult; but in order for those in power to protect the next generation they need to wholeheartedly listen to their problems rather than trying to hide them beneath a false-sense-of-security blanket.
The government, at a federal or state level, should never be the arbiter of what is considered good or bad speech. Instead, they should direct their focus to addressing the dangerous business models which drive the social media economy.
If we are to honor the First Amendment and protect the freedom of expression online or in real life we need to oppose any form of legislation which seeks to limit access to information.
Free access to information has never and will never pose a threat to the next generation.