The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bill that allows for a wide range of government penalties for online speech, could soon be passed by Congress. If that happens, the access we have to information may be forever changed. KOSA will make state prosecutors and federal bureaucrats the final arbiters of online content moderation in the U.S.
KOSA is fundamentally a censorship bill. Politicians are justifying it by harping on something we all know—that there’s content online that’s inappropriate for kids. But instead of letting tricky questions about what online content is appropriate at what age be decided by parents and families, politicians are stepping in to override us.
The U.S. Government Will Ban “Depressing” Content
The heart of the KOSA bill is a “Duty of Care” that the government forces on every website, app, social network, message forum, and video game. (It’s Section 2 in the bill text.) 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.
Of course, almost any content could easily fit into these categories—in particular, truthful news about what’s going on in the world, including wars, gun violence, and climate change. 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.
Bad feelings are also not exclusive to internet media. For many decades, newspaper and magazine style and advertising sections have promoted unrealistic or unattainable visions of what we should own, what experiences we should have, and what our bodies should look like.
Coping with this isn’t easy on anyone’s mental health, whether minors or adults. But we don’t expect news organizations to “prevent and mitigate” depression and anxiety, and we wouldn’t stand for the government suing newspapers for depressing kids. People have a right to access information—both news and opinion— in an open and democratic society. To “prevent and mitigate” self-destructive behaviors we have to look beyond the media, to systems that allow all humans to have self-respect, a healthy environment, and healthy relationships.
KOSA Throws Out Good Speech With “Bad”
KOSA will punish people for having online conversations. It empowers every state’s attorney general as well as the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to file lawsuits against websites or apps that the government believes are failing to “prevent or mitigate” the list of bad things that could influence kids online.
But it’s impossible to filter out this type of “harmful” content, and anyone who tries will be trapped. The news might depress us or make us anxious; but discussing it might also lead to positive solutions. Talking about depression—in an online forum, or with a therapist—might make a person more depressed. But it’s also a road toward healing. Similarly with discussions of substance abuse. We can’t fight against what we can’t talk about.
People can have legitimate disagreements about what speech is good, bad, or “harmful.” And we do. What we don’t allow, under the First Amendment, is for the government to haul people into court for having difficult conversations.
KOSA allows exactly this. The censorship in the bill is so obvious that the bill is completely reliant on (justifiable) anger towards big tech companies to propel it forward. It appends a considerable list of websites that don’t qualify as “covered platforms”, including schools, libraries, news organizations, and nonprofits. But you shouldn’t have to hide in a library to speak freely.
There’s Only One Internet, and KOSA Will Censor All of It
KOSA’s promise to leave the “adult” internet alone is an utterly empty one. There’s no real way to apply these rules only to minors without creating a special “kids site”—and even then, a website operator will have to be worried about government action. It is likely to see some teenagers who lie about their age, or just stay quiet about it. EFF opposes mandatory age-verification, which is a bad idea for many reasons, including the fact that it takes away adults’ right to talk to each other anonymously.
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.
KOSA isn’t Different From Removing “Depressing” Books Out Of The Library
We all know there’s content online that’s harmful, and inappropriate for kids. Ideally, parents and families should decide what online content is appropriate for what age, and what is off-limits. Every day, parents and kids (and all adults) make decisions about what to view, and whether and how much to limit screen time. These personal and family decisions are incredibly important, but we’ve never allowed the government to set rules and punishments around them—until now, if KOSA passes.
KOSA is also a direct attack on minors who want to learn about their world on their own terms, and to speak out about it. The right to youth speech and youth activism has been strongly protected in the U.S. for more than 50 years. Youth can talk to each other and adults in ways that make us uncomfortable, or some see as inappropriate. The Supreme Court protected a 14-year-old student’s right to free speech in 2021 when it allowed her to denigrate a school athletic team (a case that EFF weighed in on). These are the same rights that were protected in 1969, when the Supreme Court said that two kids, aged 16 and 13, couldn’t be punished for protesting the Vietnam War with black armbands.
Now we have a group of lawmakers harnessing fears over kids’ safety to suggest that the internet is a completely different world. They propose a world in which depressing or socially difficult conversations—the curse words, the black armbands, the wars—will be whitewashed, in the name of kids’ mental health.
Members of Congress aren’t qualified to tell people what to read—kids or adults, online or offline. We wouldn’t let attorneys general remove books from a school library because they could be depressing or promote substance abuse. We shouldn’t let them have such censorial power over the internet, either.
The Senate has recently passed amendments to the law, which do not resolve the issues we’ve laid out. It isn’t too late to stop KOSA, and both adults and young people have been speaking out and will continue to do so. The bill hasn’t been voted on by the full Senate or considered in the House of Representatives.
It’s time for Congress to listen to the vast majority of people who use a free and open internet to make their lives better for themselves, their kids, and their families.
Some elected officials are clearly starting to get it. Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-FL), the youngest member of the House of Representatives at age 26, has said in an email to his constituents that he opposes the bill, and that it could be used to censor LBGTQ+ content, or HIV prevention information. He adds:
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.
We hope more members of Congress will understand that KOSA is a censorship bill that will put kids in danger, not help them.