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Kids Online Safety Act may harm minors, civil society groups warn

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Dozens of civil society groups urged lawmakers in a letter on Monday against passing a bill that aims to protect children from online harm, warning the bill itself could actually inflict further danger on kids and teens.

The American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future and Wikimedia Foundation were among the groups that wrote to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Roger Wicker, R-Miss., opposing the Kids Online Safety Act.

The bipartisan bill, led by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., would establish responsibilities for sites that are likely to be accessed by kids to act in the best interest of users who are 16 or younger. That means the platforms would be responsible for mitigating the risk of physical or emotional harm to young users, including through the promotion of self-harm or suicide, encouragement of addictive behavior, enabling of online bullying or predatory marketing.

The bill would require sites to default to more private settings for users 16 and younger and limit the contacts that could connect with them. It would also require tools for parents to track the time their kids are spending on certain sites and give them access to some information about the kids’ use of the platform so that parents can address potential harm. Sites would have to let their young users know when parental tools are in effect.

The civil society groups that signed Monday’s letter, which includes several groups that advocate for the rights of the LGBTQ community, warned that the tools the bill creates to protect children could actually backfire.

“KOSA would require online services to ‘prevent’ a set of harms to minors, which is effectively an instruction to employ broad content filtering to limit minors’ access to certain online content,” the groups wrote, adding that content filters used by schools in response to earlier legislation have limited resources for sex education and for LGBTQ youth.

“Online services would face substantial pressure to over-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 books with LGBTQ+ themes are being banned from school libraries and people providing healthcare to trans children are being accused of ‘grooming,’ KOSA would cut off another vital avenue of access to information for vulnerable youth.”

The bill has gained momentum at a time when debates over parental control of what’s taught in school, specifically as it relates to gender identity and sexual orientation, have come to the forefront due to controversial state measures like Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, also referred to by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

The KOSA opponents warned that prescriptive parental controls could be harmful to kids in abusive situations.

“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,” the groups wrote. “And by creating strong incentives to filter and enable parental control over the content minors can access, KOSA could also jeopardize young people’s access to end-to-end encrypted technologies, which they depend on to access resources related to mental health and to keep their data safe from bad actors.”

The groups also fear that the bill would incentivize sites to collect even more information about children to verify their ages and place further restrictions on minors’ accounts.

“Age verification may require users to provide platforms with personally identifiable information such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which can 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. “Rather than age-gating privacy settings and safety tools to 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 goals of the legislation “laudable,” but said KOSA would ultimately fall flat in its aims to protect children.

“We urge members of Congress not to move KOSA forward this session, either as a standalone bill or attached to other urgent legislation, and encourage members to work toward solutions that protect young people’s rights to privacy and access to information and their ability to seek safe and trusted spaces to communicate online,” they wrote.

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