“Will someone please think of the children!” That’s the main driving force behind the latest controversial, confusing, and outright worrying legislation making its way through the United States political system. On Thursday, the Senate Commerce Committee approved the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) alongside a revised version of the already-passed Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). With bipartisan support, it will head to the Senate floor for a vote (date unknown).
The Kids Online Safety Act, on just the surface, claims to make the internet a safer place. Introduced in February 2022, it attempts to hold all online platforms, from social media companies to video games, accountable for the harm that minors could experience while scrolling the web.
It wants to force these companies to implement “readily-accessible and easy-to-use” parental controls,” adapt algorithmic recommendation systems to prioritize the best interests of minors,” and provide information about “algorithmic systems.” The bill also claims to “limit the ability of other individuals to contact” minors through “safeguards” and ban kids 13 and under from using social media. These proposals are so vaguely worded that some worry they could force ID verification just to use the web.
It also creates a role for researchers to look over the data that these companies have and the ability to create a committee that will determine how to enforce age verification.
With just the cliff notes, it sounds fine and dandy. The internet is a scary place, and children with free reign can end up in some dicey situations. (As a millennial who grew up at the peak of Ebaum’s World and the horror of clicking a shady link, I should know). But the vague language of the bill and the overall distrust a lot of us have in our government makes Kids Online Safety Act seem like a truly dangerous threat to the overall health of the web.
Giving parents more control over their child’s online life could just create more problems for the budding youth. Children in abusive homes or LGBTQ+ children, children seeking reproductive healthcare, or those with parents who don’t agree with their lifestyle choices could have their lifelines of protection from the outside world squashed by these strict parental controls. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, in tweeted in May that they plan to use the bill to censor LGBTQ+ content and that “keeping trans content away from children is protecting kids.”
In November 2022, over 90 human rights organizations released an open letter opposing the bill because it would “undermine” the protection of children online.
“Older minors have their independent rights to privacy and access to information, and not every parent-child dynamic is healthy or constructive,” the letter said. “KOSA risks subjecting teens who are experiencing domestic violence and parental abuse to additional forms of digital surveillance and control that could prevent these vulnerable youth from reaching out for help or support.”
Worries Over Strict Verification
There’s also some worry that the bill could force social media companies to implement strict verification systems. TikToker @PearlMania500 had a video reach over 2.5 million views this week, claiming that the bill would “make sure that you have to upload your driver’s license before you can use your First Amendment on the internet.”
Right now, the Kids Online Safety Act only requires the National Institute of Standards and Technology to conduct a study determining the best way to solve the age verification issue. Though it doesn’t explicitly force you to add your home address to your Twitter (X.com?) account before you decide to compliment an influencer’s feet pics, it does feel like that could be the solution down the road.
Requiring the use of IDs would be a major threat to undocumented individuals and those who protest politically against their government. We already talked about how ethically and legally dubious Voter ID Laws are, so why bring that issue into the online space?
For creators, an ID-based verification system doesn’t seem so bad. Receiving hate, death threats, or getting doxxed would happen a lot less if people had to tie their identity to their online persona. But the loss of freedom would taint the internet forever and would just cause bad-faith actors to get creative with fake accounts or VPNs. Using AI or human moderation would help clean the web up and protect minors way more than just this ludicrous bill.
Dear Senators, This Bill Ain’t It
At Thursday’s markup, Democratic Senator from Washington Chair Maria Cantwell plans to “continue to work with” critics, but is that enough?
We all know the internet is dangerous, especially for the young. Some of what Kids Online Safety Act is proposing isn’t so bad, like forcing companies to explain why they are advertising to a minor or funding research at non-profits looking into the effects these platforms have on minors.
But imposing strict draconian rules for minors that remove all of their agency just isn’t the answer. There needs to be some sort of middle ground that protects the most vulnerable while also maintaining everyone else’s rights.
And right now, KOSA ain’t it.
What are your thoughts on the Kids Online Safety Act? Email [email protected] to share your thoughts.