Kids Online Safety Shouldn’t Require Massive Online Censorship and Surveillance: 2023 Year in Review

Deeplinks 2023-12-28


There’s been plenty of bad news regarding federal legislation in 2023. For starters, Congress has failed to pass meaningful comprehensive data privacy reforms. Instead, legislators have spent an enormous amount of energy pushing dangerous legislation that’s intended to limit young people’s use of some of the most popular sites and apps, all under the guise of protecting kids. Unfortunately, many of these bills would run roughshod over the rights of young people and adults in the process. We spent much of the year fighting these dangerous “child safety” bills, while also pointing out to legislators that comprehensive data privacy legislation would be more likely to pass constitutional muster and address many of the issues that these child safety bills focus on. 

But there’s also good news: so far, none of these dangerous bills have been passed at the federal level, or signed into law. That's thanks to a large coalition of digital rights groups and other organizations pushing back, as well as tens of thousands of individuals demanding protections for online rights in the many bills put forward.

Kids Online Safety Act Returns

The biggest danger has come from the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). Originally introduced in 2022, it was reintroduced this year and amended several times, and as of today, has 46 co-sponsors in the Senate. As soon as it was reintroduced, we fought back, because KOSA is fundamentally a censorship bill. The heart of the bill is a “Duty of Care” that the government will force on a huge number of websites, apps, social networks, messaging forums, and online video games. KOSA will compel even the smallest online forums to take action against content that politicians believe will cause minors “anxiety,” “depression,” or encourage substance abuse, among other behaviors. Of course, almost any content could easily fit into these categories—in particular, truthful news about what’s going on in the world, including wars, gun violence, and climate change. Kids don’t need to fall into a  wormhole of internet content to get anxious; they could see a newspaper on the breakfast table. 

Fortunately, so many people oppose KOSA that it never made it to the Senate floor for a full vote.

KOSA will empower every state’s attorney general as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file lawsuits against websites or apps that the government believes are failing to “prevent or mitigate” the list of bad things that could influence kids online. Platforms affected by KOSA would likely find it impossible to filter out this type of “harmful” content, though they would likely try. Online services that want to host serious discussions about mental health issues, sexuality, gender identity, substance abuse, or a host of other issues, will all have to beg minors to leave, and institute age verification tools to ensure that it happens. Age verification systems are surveillance systems that threaten everyone’s privacy. Mandatory age verification, and with it, mandatory identity verification, is the wrong approach to protecting young people online.

The Senate passed amendments to KOSA later in the year, but these do not resolve its issues. As an example, liability under the law was shifted to be triggered only for content that online services recommend to users under 18, rather than content that minors specifically search for. In practice, that means platforms could not proactively show content to young users that could be “harmful,” but could present that content to them. How this would play out in practice is unclear; search results are recommendations, and future recommendations are impacted by previous searches. But however it’s interpreted, it’s still censorship—and it fundamentally misunderstands how search work


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Jason Kelley

Date tagged:

12/28/2023, 20:01

Date published:

12/28/2023, 11:25