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Another Controversial Online Safety Bill
The Kids Online Safety Act has garnered much controversy from privacy and free speech experts.
There’s a controversial online safety bill making its way through Congress. The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) is designed to protect kids from online harm on social media, but of course, it’s garnered much controversy from privacy and online free speech experts, who believe the bill will result in online surveillance and censorship.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) even calls KOSA a “censorship bill” and believes it will change the way we access information forever.
At the heart of the bill, the EFF notes “is a “Duty of Care” that the government forces on every website, app, social network, message forum, and video game.”
“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,” writes Joe Mullin, a senior policy analyst at EFF.
This sounds a lot like censorship. In fact, the EFF notes that as the KOSA bill stands in its current form, there’s no way around censorship.
Realistically, under KOSA, there’s no way to not censor. Websites 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. If one kid gets through or just ignores the rules, the U.S. speech police will come knocking.
Congressman Maxwell Frost agrees. As the youngest member of the House of Representatives (he’s 26), Frost opposes KOSA, saying it could censor educational content and online resources. He writes:
Proposals that involve filtering or identification requirements on sites, like the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), would have unintended consequences that undermine our goal of an enriching and educational Internet experience and far outweigh their benefits. They jeopardize kids’ privacy through increased data collection and promote inappropriate parental surveillance which can keep children experiencing domestic abuse from seeking help.
Meanwhile, Senator Richard Blumenthal, who along with Seantor Marsha Blackburn, introduced the bill, notes that tech companies are causing irreparable harm to America’s youth. He says his bill will fix the problems with “toxic” online content.
“Our bill provides specific tools to stop Big Tech companies from driving toxic content at kids and to hold them accountable for putting profits over safety,” said Blumenthal. “Record levels of hopelessness and despair—a national teen mental health crisis—have been fueled by black box algorithms featuring eating disorders, bullying, suicidal thoughts, and more.”
If you read between the lines, it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that forcing tech companies to eliminate online content that may including bullying and eating disorders is censorship. And while certain online content is damaging to the mental health of youth, this type of content is found offline, too.
“Kids don’t need to fall into a complex wormhole of internet content to get anxious; they could see a newspaper on the breakfast table,” writes Mullin.
Or they could watch it on the news, or hear about it from friends, or witness bullying at school.
While working to prevent kids from seeing harmful content online has good intentions, we have to be careful where we land in regards to laws meant to control such content.
Bills that set limits on content for youth also overspil into privacy and censorship issues. Think ID requirements that require everyone to show proof of age, which vastly oversteps the boundaries of privacy. The UK’s Online Safety Act is expected to break end-to-end encryption, and has privacy experts up in arms.
We have to consider everyone’s privacy and freedom of speech. As Mullin notes, we can disagree about what harmful content is, but we have to be aware of everyone’s rights and freedoms.
“People can have legitimate disagreements about what speech is good, bad, or “harmful.” And we do,” Mullin writes. “What we don’t allow, under the First Amendment, is for the government to haul people into court for having difficult conversations.”