Lawmakers revise Kids Online Safety Act to address LGBTQ advocates’ concerns

The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) is getting closer to becoming a law, which would make social platforms significantly more responsible for protecting children who use their products. With 62 Senators backing the bill, KOSA seems poised to clear the Senate and progress to the House.

KOSA creates a duty of care for social media platforms to limit addictive or harmful features that have demonstrably affected the mental health of children. The bill also requires platforms to develop more robust parental controls.

But under a previous version of KOSA, LGBTQ advocates pushed back on a part of the bill that would give individual state attorneys general the ability to decide what content is inappropriate for children. This rings alarm bells in a time when LGBTQ rights are being attacked on the state level, and books with LGBTQ characters and themes are being censored in public schools. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), who introduced the bill with Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), said that a top priority for conservatives should be to “protect minor children from the transgender [sic] in this culture,” including on social media.

After multiple amendments, the new draft of KOSA has appeased some concerns from LGBTQ rights groups like GLAAD, the Human Rights Campaign and The Trevor Project; for one, the FTC will instead be responsible for nationwide enforcement of KOSA, rather than state-specific enforcement by attorneys general.

A letter to Senator Blumenthal from seven LGBTQ rights organizations said: “The considerable changes that you have proposed to KOSA in the draft released on February 15, 2024, significantly mitigate the risk of it being misused to suppress LGBTQ+ resources or stifle young people’s access to online communities. As such, if this draft of the bill moves forward, our organizations will not oppose its passage.”

Other privacy-minded activist groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and Fight for the Future are still skeptical of the bill, even after the changes.

In a statement shared with TechCrunch, Fight for the Future said that these changes are promising, but don’t go far enough.

“As we have said for months, the fundamental problem with KOSA is that its duty of care covers content specific aspects of content recommendation systems, and the new changes fail to address that. In fact, personalized recommendation systems are explicitly listed under the definition of a design feature covered by the duty of care,” Fight for the Future said. “This means that a future Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could still use KOSA to pressure platforms into automated filtering of important but controversial topics like LGBTQ issues and abortion, by claiming that algorithmically recommending that content ’causes’ mental health outcomes that are covered by the duty of care like anxiety and depression.”

The Blumenthal and Blackburn offices said that the duty of care changes were made to regulate the business model and practices of social media companies, rather than the content that is posted on them.

KOSA was also amended last year to address earlier concerns about age-verification requirements for users of all ages that could endanger privacy and security. Jason Kelley, the EFF’s activism director, is concerned that these amendments aren’t enough to ward off dangerous interpretations of the bill.

“Despite these latest amendments, KOSA remains a dangerous and unconstitutional censorship bill which we continue to oppose,” Kelly said in a statement to TechCrunch. “It would still let federal and state officials decide what information can be shared online and how everyone can access lawful speech. It would still require an enormous number of websites, apps, and online platforms to filter and block legal, and important, speech. It would almost certainly still result in age verification requirements.”

The issue of children’s online safety has stayed at the forefront of lawmakers’ minds, especially after five big tech CEOs testified before the Senate a few weeks ago. With increasing support for KOSA, Blumenthal’s office told TechCrunch that it is intent on fast-tracking the bill forward.

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