Dozens of civil society groups urged lawmakers in a letter Monday not to pass a bill that aims to protect children from online harm, warning that the bill itself could actually create additional danger for children and teenagers.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and the Wikimedia Foundation were among the groups that wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash. ., and ranking member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., opposes the Children’s Online Safety Act.
The bipartisan bill, led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marcia Blackburn, R-Tenn., would establish responsibilities for sites likely to be accessed by children to act in the best interests of users who are 16 or younger. This means that platforms will be responsible for reducing the risk of physical or emotional harm to young users, including by encouraging self-harm or suicide, promoting addictive behaviour, enabling online harassment or predatory marketing.
The bill would require sites to default to more personal settings for users 16 and younger and limit the contacts who can contact them. It would also require tools for parents to track the time their children spend on certain sites and give them access to information about children’s use of the platform so parents can address potential harm. Sites will have to notify their young users when parental tools are in effect.
Civil society groups that signed Monday’s letter, which includes several LGBTQ rights groups, warned that the tools the bill creates to protect children could actually backfire.
“KOSA would require online services to ‘prevent’ a range of harms to minors, which is effectively an instruction to use broad content filtering to limit minors’ access to certain online content,” the groups wrote, adding that the filters for content used by schools in response to previous legislation have limited resources for sexuality education and for LGBTQ youth.
“Online services will face significant pressure to moderate, including from state attorneys general seeking to make political points about what kind of information is appropriate for young people,” they added. “At a time when LGBTQ+ books are being banned from school libraries and people providing health care to trans children are being accused of ‘grooming,’ KOSA will cut off another vital avenue of access to information for vulnerable youth.”
The bill gained momentum at a time when debates over parental control over what is taught in school, particularly regarding gender identity and sexual orientation, have come to the forefront due to controversial state measures such as the Florida Parental Rights in Education Act, also referred to by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.
Opponents of KOSA have warned that mandated parental controls can be harmful to children in abusive situations.
“KOSA risks subjecting teenagers who experience 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,” the groups wrote. “And by creating strong incentives to filter and enable parental controls on the content that minors can access, KOSA may also threaten young people’s access to the end-to-end encrypted technologies they depend on to access resources, related to mental health, and to keep their data protected from bad actors.”
The groups also fear the bill will incentivize sites to collect even more information about children to verify their age and impose further restrictions on minors’ accounts.
“Age verification may require users to provide platforms with personal information, such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which may threaten users’ privacy, including through the risk of data breaches, and chill their willingness to access sensitive information online because they cannot do so anonymously,” they wrote. “Instead of age-specific privacy settings and safety tools that apply only to minors, Congress should focus on ensuring that all users, regardless of age, benefit from strong privacy protections by passing comprehensive privacy legislation .”
The groups called the legislation’s goals “laudable” but said KOSA would ultimately fail in its goals of protecting children.
“We urge members of Congress not to move KOSA forward this session, either as a stand-alone bill or attached to other emergency legislation, and we encourage members to work toward solutions that protect young people’s rights to privacy and access to information and their ability to seek out safe and trusted spaces to communicate online,” they write.
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