Tech Policy

Congress’s online child safety bill, explained

In this photo illustration, the Instagram, Messenger, and Facebook apps are being displayed on a smartphone screen in Athens, Greece, on May 1, 2024. (Photo by Nikolas Kokovlis/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s tough to feel urgency about something that progresses in slow motion. Bear with me, though, because it is time, once again, to care about the Kids’ Online Safety Act, otherwise known as KOSA, a federal bill that was designed to protect children from online harms. 

The bill has been hanging around in Congress in some form since 2022, when Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) introduced their bipartisan response to a series of congressional hearings and investigations into online child safety. While KOSA’s specific provisions have changed in the years since, the central goal of the legislation remains the same: legislators want to make platforms more responsible for the well-being of kids who use their services, and provide tools to parents so that they can manage how younger people use the internet. 

The dangers posed to minors by the internet has long been simultaneously a real threat and a moral panic. It’s a political issue that has bipartisan support, while also appearing to be extremely difficult to govern without infringing on First Amendment protections. 

KOSA was born after Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen revealed, among other things, that Meta had evidence its platforms were harming the mental health of teens, and did nothing to mitigate those harms (Facebook has previously said that they believe Haugen’s claims are misleading). The environment in which the bill’s sponsors sought support, however, is rife with evidence of how such legislation might be misused for partisan reason.

The conservative think tank Heritage Foundation has said directly that they would seek to use measures like KOSA to restrict access to content about sexual and gender identity online. And while revised versions of the bill seek to address this concern, Fight for the Future, a digital rights advocacy group, has gathered a coalition of organizations that believe the current version of the bill still leaves LGBTQ+ youth vulnerable to censorship and harm, by limiting self expression and cutting off minors from access to information.

So, what is KOSA, exactly? 

Here’s why we’re talking about KOSA now: The latest Senate version of the bill has enough votes to pass. And recently, legislators in the House introduced their own version of the bill, which differs in some ways from the Senate version, but is on track to go before the full Energy and Commerce committee in June. 

The House bill is progressing alongside another privacy measure that more generally addresses data security standards. The two KOSA bills have bipartisan support, and follow a successful push to pass a law that could ban the short-video platform TikTok. 

Both KOSA bills aim to achieve their goals by requiring the following:  

  • Online services covered by the bill would need to take measures to prevent harm to users under the age of 17. The House and Senate bills have different definitions of the platforms and harms to which this provision would apply. Both have language requiring platforms to mitigate harm related to certain mental health disorders, compulsive social media usage, physical violence, sexual exploitation, and drug use. 
  • Covered sites would have to introduce limitations into the design of their platform on how minors use it. For instance, KOSA would require platforms to limit the ability of other users to communicate with minors, limit personalized recommendation features for minors, limit features that encourage minors to spend more time on the app — including infinite scrolling and auto plays, features that are characteristic of TikTok’s For You page and widely imitated by other social media platforms. 
  • These platforms would also need to offer parental tools that allow management of a minor user’s privacy, ability to purchase in-app items, and time spent on the platform. Platforms would also need to have a reporting system specifically for content that may cause harm to a minor. 

The downsides of prioritizing online safety

If it passes — and that’s still a big if — KOSA would be the first major reform to rules governing online child safety since the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), a 1998 law that regulates how a wide range of sites must handle information collected on users under 13. While COPPA does allow companies to collect information on these users with parental consent, the rules have, practically speaking, led many major platforms to simply ban users under 13 from having an account at all.  

No matter the intent, however, many privacy advocates are skeptical of KOSA. While some recent changes won over the support of a few national organizations, the measure has struggled to gain support from LGBTQ+ organizations, who are concerned that the provisions could be used to restrict younger people’s access to resources about their identity. And while KOSA has undergone a few major revisions to address those fears, not all advocates are convinced

The ACLU remains skeptical of KOSA, for instance. In a statement earlier this year, the civil liberties organization said that the bill would still harm the First Amendment rights of adults by incentivizing the removal of anonymous browsing on wide swaths of the internet, and by encouraging platforms to “censor protected speech” in order to ensure compliance with the bill’s provisions. Likewise, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has called the revised KOSA measure an “unconstitutional censorship bill” that would provide too much power to state attorneys general to determine how these provisions are actually enforced. 

Pushes to regulate the internet have a deep connection to calls to protect children from its harms. That makes sense in some ways: The internet hosts a great deal of things that can be harmful to kids and adults alike, from privacy violations to networked harassment to incentivizing sensationalist and inaccurate content. But online access is always a both/and situation: the internet is both harmful to and a lifeline for young people. And it seems that organizations representing the interests of many marginalized communities aren’t convinced that KOSA will balance this.

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