“There’s this giant censorship machine that also is privacy invasive.”
KOSA would target LGBTQ online content, and make the internet less private. Credit: Bob Al-Greene / Mashable
U.S. lawmakers are coming for the free and open internet in the name of “child safety,” and now they’re even saying the quiet part out loud.
In recent years, numerous bills have cropped up to chip away at internet privacy and security. To name a few: FOSTA-SESTA, passed in 2018, which weakened Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act so that websites and social platforms were liable for “sexual solicitation” posts; the EARN IT Act, introduced in 2020 and reintroduced in 2022, which would further weaken Section 230; age-verification bills, passed in Louisiana and elsewhere, which require porn site visitors to show ID; and the Kids Online Safety Act, also known as KOSA, which was introduced in 2022 and reintroduced this year.
At a glance, these bills seem positive. We want everyone, especially children, to be protected and safe online; that’s why KOSA has bipartisan support, including an endorsement from President Joe Biden. But KOSA wouldn’t actually protect children. It’d make the internet less private, and thus less safe, for everyone. What’s more is that conservatives would use it to target LGBTQ content.
Over Labor Day weekend, Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn — the lead co-sponsor for KOSA — said that “protecting minor children from the transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence” should be a top issue for conservatives now, in an interview with conservative Christian organization Family Policy Alliance.
Blackburn then mentions KOSA, saying that it would put a duty of care on social media platforms. This means that platforms would be responsible to “prevent and mitigate harms to minors” including content promoting “self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and sexual exploitation” according to Blackburn’s and co-sponsor Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s KOSA one-pager. The Federal Trade Commission and individual state attorneys general would enforce this, as stated in the full KOSA bill.
“Even without targeted measures, the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) could have severely detrimental consequences for LGBTQ+ online content,” wrote trans reporter and advocate Erin Reed about Blackburn’s comments, citing data from GLAAD about how LGBTQ content is disproportionately blocked or shadowbanned by social media platforms already.
Indeed, there is a double standard on social platforms: Content from marginalized groups faces increased scrutiny from platforms, and the platforms don’t protect them against harassment. LGBTQ Instagram users, for instance, told Mashable they’re often shadowbanned and blocked when posting non-nude, non-sexual content.
KOSA could massively impact everyone’s online rightsIn addition to silencing LGBTQ people, KOSA can have other detrimental ramifications. Activism director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Jason Kelley wrote that KOSA is a danger to our online rights in several ways. For one, attorneys general would have the power to block content if they deem it dangerous for young people — be it about anything from trans healthcare to substance use to gun ownership.
For another, KOSA would require age verification. It would “require, essentially, websites to not show certain types of content to young people,” said Kelley in a March interview with Mashable. “But of course, then the question is, how do they know who is a young person?” The answer is age-verification.
As Mashable reported on specified “age-verification bills,” requiring age verification doesn’t work. As users would be obligated to share personal, identifying information, there’d be a heightened privacy risk; identity theft could increase, for instance.
“There’s this giant censorship machine that also is privacy invasive,” Kelley told Mashable.
Further, age-verification systems could be bypassed with software like VPNs, rendering them useless for their proposed purpose.
How do we protect kids online? Device-level filters, which block all websites that are “restricted to adults” are a start. Furthermore, talking with your children about online safety is imperative. On the legislative level, Kelley is a proponent of stronger, more comprehensive privacy laws and increased competition.
“Part of the problem is we are focusing on restriction instead of other kinds of beneficial aspects of the web that could make things better for everyone,” he said. “People don’t want their data to be collected, people want to have control over [their data]…The reason that these websites don’t exist is that there are no comprehensive privacy laws.”
With increased competition, say there was a YouTube competitor that had more features and allowed you to make decisions about how the algorithms work — users would like that, and YouTube would be forced to keep up.
KOSA isn’t the solution. Blackburn said it herself: It’d be used to erase transgender content online.
Anna Iovine is the sex and relationships reporter at Mashable, where she covers topics ranging from dating apps to pelvic pain. Previously, she was a social editor at VICE and freelanced for publications such as Slate and the Columbia Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @annaroseiovine.