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Online safety legislation is opposed by many it claims to protect

Lawmakers who grilled the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, Snapchat, Discord and X on Wednesday all seemed to agree that protecting children’s safety online was a priority. Many of those children were less accepting of the idea, and they let their opinions flow as they listened to the hearing through a Discord server.

“These senators don’t actually care about protecting kids, they just want to control information,” one teenager posted. “If congress wants to protect children, they should pass a … privacy law,” another teenager said. Others in the server accused the lawmakers of “trying to demonize the CEOs to push their … bills,” which were often described with profanity.

They’re not alone in their opposition to the Kids Online Safety Act, a bill introduced in Congress by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D‑Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R‑Tenn.), and similar efforts by state legislatures.

KOSA would require digital platforms to take “reasonable measures” to prevent harms to children, specifically enumerating sexual exploitation, mental health, substance abuse and suicide. It would also require companies to enable their strongest privacy and safety settings for kids by default, provide parents with greater control over their children’s account settings and force companies to regularly audit their products for potential risks.

The measure has twice advanced out of committee with broad bipartisan support and is now backed by nearly half the Senate, but has yet to be taken up by the full Senate and lacks a companion bill in the House, clouding its potential path to passage.

More than 100 human rights and LGBTQ groups have condemned the bill, saying it would endanger minors, especially LGBTQ youth. First Amendment lawyers and organizations focused on protecting free speech also have lambasted the proposal and similar state laws, saying they would place dire restrictions on free speech and expression.

“What we’re seeing is a rash of legislation that both doesn’t do what it thinks it’s going to do, will be used to do bad things specifically, and also will impact the First Amendment rights of adults and minors alike,” said Ari Cohn, free speech counsel at TechFreedom, a tech policy think tank. “Nothing should terrify you more than having to identify yourself before speaking online.”

Opponents say KOSA would result in the collection of more sensitive data on both children and adults, violate the First Amendment, impose legal mandates that are inherently unenforceable, and significantly limit the ability for children to access and benefit from the internet, according to a report from R Street, a policy research organization that describes itself as center right.

“The whole hearing was a joke; it was a sham,” said May, the 26-year-old Michigan activist who created the Discord server in hopes of rallying opposition to KOSA. She agreed to speak to The Washington Post on the condition that she be identified by first name only. “The way they were attacking political content that they disagree with, it’s obvious they’re using this bill to censor speech.”

Activists pointed to moments in the hearing such as when Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) claimed TikTok is “being used to basically destroy Israel” as examples of how the real issue the senators had with social media is views with which they don’t agree. LGBTQ groups also cited earlier comments by Blackburn, where she claimed KOSA would help in “protecting minor children from the transgender in this culture,” claiming that social media “is where children are being indoctrinated.”

An open letter written in 2022 by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group, has been signed by dozens of LGBTQ and human rights organizations. It outlined an extensive list of issues with the bill, saying it would require social media sites “to employ broad content filtering to limit minors’ access to certain online content” and would “threaten the privacy, safety, and access to information rights of young people and adults alike.”

A member of Blumenthal’s staff acknowledged in an interview that the bill faces opposition, but said since the 2022 EFF letter, the bill has gone through several updates and revisions and that they are working with advocates to address their concerns, specifically around data collection and LGBTQ issues.

Those revisions haven’t silenced critics.

“People have been using the idea of protecting children as the justification for authoritarian policies that actually hurt children for decades,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, another human rights advocacy group. “KOSA is not a privacy bill; it’s a censorship bill.”

Greer listed the concerns: “KOSA, as written, would make kids less safe by cutting them off from access to lifesaving information and resources on controversial but important topics like abortion, gender-affirming care, substance abuse and even current events.” Especially concerning was the bill’s requirement that social media exhibit a “duty of care” that would cover content recommendations by a site.

“It can and will be used as a censorship bill,” Greer said. “It will force platforms to suppress a wide range of content that has nothing to do with harming kids, just to avoid possible litigation. And there’s no meaningful way to comply with it without conducting invasive age verification.”

Cohn, the free speech counsel, blasted the hearing as feeding those who believe, without evidence, that any new cultural development threatens young people.

“What we are seeing is the same exact thing as when people said comic books were causing kids to commit crime and juvenile delinquency, or when they said TV is melting kids’ brains, or that Dungeons and Dragons is causing an unprecedented mental health crisis,” Cohn told The Post. “Every new form of media has at some point been declared to be destroying the mental fabric of American youth.”

166/ It’s just the latest example of Congress caring more about soundbites than careful legislation.

Repeated claims that the committee is open to hearing criticism of their bills and fixing language is LAUGHABLE. They have brushed off such feedback wholesale.

— Ari Cohn (@AriCohn) January 31, 2024

The evidence of social media’s impact on young people’s mental health is not supported by studies of the subject, opponents say. A 2022 Pew Research survey found that the majority of teens credit social media with “strengthening their friendships and providing support.” LGBTQ youths specifically have more positive outcomes when they have access to social media, according to a 2023 report by the U.S. surgeon general that was mostly a warning on the harm social media may cause for children.

A 2023 Oxford study that analyzed data from close to a million people across 72 countries over the course of 12 years, found no “smoking gun” linking the internet with psychological harm. In fact, it found a potential association between Facebook use and positive well-being. “Our results do not provide evidence supporting the view that the Internet and technologies enabled by it, such as smartphones with Internet access, are actively promoting or harming either well-being or mental health globally,” Oxford researchers said in the study.

In fact, research shows that how social media makes people feel depends largely on how they use it. In a 2023 advisory, the American Psychology Association said that “using social media is not inherently beneficial or harmful to young people. Adolescents’ lives online both reflect and impact their offline lives.”

Teenagers and Gen Z activists echoed those sentiments on Wednesday.

“The internet allows people to see different ideas,” said Nathan, a 15-year old in New York who agreed to speak to The Post on the condition that they be identified only by their first name. “They can hear different ideas. They can learn about LGBT people. They can see so many things. These bills are created to censor and hide children. They are created to cut people off from the outside world.”

Nathan, who is nonbinary, said the internet helped them overcome an eating disorder. They worried the information that helped them would no longer be accessible if social media platforms were required to wall off certain topics such as eating disorders.

TechFreedom’s Cohn agreed. “People who are anti eating disorder use the same language as people who are pro eating disorder,” he said. “It’s impossible to determine in any meaningful way at large scale whether content is pro or anti eating disorder and what kind of effect it’s going to have on viewers.”

Onyx, a 15-year-old in Tennessee who agreed to talk only if just his first name was used, said the internet had saved his life by helping to relieve the isolation of his physical environment. “I’m not really allowed to go anywhere,” he said. He worries that bills like KOSA would eliminate his access to online communities he considers essential to his ability to socialize.

@sarahephilips sorry i needed a rant #KOSA #badinternetbills #bib #kidsonlinesafetyact ♬ original sound – sarah

There’s also an enormous disparity in terms of which Gen Z activists get a voice and meetings with representatives and whose voices are silenced, young people said. “We have lives. We have jobs. We have stuff to do. We’re not poli-sci majors backed by billionaires and certain organizations,” May said. “Just because you’ve got a couple kids up there who can afford to go to D.C., does not mean Gen Z agrees with KOSA.”

May and other young people listening to the hearing on the Discord server were particularly incensed that some of KOSA’s biggest supporters have voted against gun-control measures or public funding for parks and other measures they feel would actually help teenagers’ mental health.

“Every person who claims to care about kids online is ignoring the fact that the internet is the only space left for kids,” May said. “In real life, you’re dealing with mass shooters, no public spaces that are free and nearby. Nobody has money to go hang out at a mall or anything.”

Activists and tech policy experts both said they sympathize with parents who believe their children have been harmed by the internet, but that doesn’t mean they support legislation they think would be damaging.

“These are real stories with real tragedy and sadness,” said Taylor Barkley, director of technology and innovation policy at the Center for Growth and Opportunity, a policy research center at Utah State University. “That makes it all the more important to find solutions that work, and a lot of major leading proposals are not going to end up helping kids and teens in the long run. It’s going to end up restricting their access to information, educational content, connection, community.”

In the hours after the hearing, members of May’s Discord group traded screen recordings they said they planned to disseminate online. Some said they’d already called their representatives’ offices to voice their anger, but were ignored. They wondered whether it was because they aren’t yet of voting age.

Adam Kovacevich, founder of the Chamber of Progress, a tech trade group, said he hopes Congress will listen to opponents of the bill. “There used to be a quaint time in American politics where politicians preached a message of personal responsibility and parental decisions,” he said. “Now, it seems the elements of both the right and left have converged on a much more heavy hand from the government.”

He also hopes that the moral panic around technology will subside.

“There is something timeless about moral panics,” Kovacevich said. “You could say they are a reflection of every parent’s worry and desire to do best by their kids. But you can respond in a variety of ways. You could say, ‘Look, I want that for my kids. And I’m going to help them navigate the rough edges of adolescence.’ Or you could say, ‘I want the best for my kids and so I’m going to go ask a politician to pass a new law.’

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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