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A key Senate committee voted to move forward one of the most dangerous bills we’ve seen in years: the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). EFF has opposed the Kids Online Safety Act, S. 1409, because it’s a danger to the rights of all users, both minors and adults. The bill requires all websites, apps, and online platforms to filter and block legal speech. It empowers state attorney generals, who are mostly elected politicians, to file lawsuits based on content they believe will be harmful to young people.
These fundamental flaws remain in the bill, and EFF and many others continue to oppose it. We urge anyone who cares about free speech and privacy online to send a message to Congress voicing your opposition.
Before the Senate Commerce Committee voted to move forward the bill on July 27, it incorporated a number of amendments. While none of them change the fundamental problems with KOSA, or our opposition to the bill, we analyze them here.
The Bill’s Knowledge Standard Has Changed
The first change to the bill is that the knowledge standard has been tightened, so that websites and apps can only be held liable if they actually know there’s a young person using their service. The previous version of the bill regulated any online platform that was used by minors, or was “reasonably likely to be used” by a minor.
The previous version applied to a huge swath of the internet, since the view of what sites are “reasonably likely to be used” by a minor would be up to attorney generals. Other than sites that took big steps, like requiring age verification, almost any site could be “reasonably likely” to be used by a minor.
Requiring actual knowledge of minors is an improvement, but the protective effect is small. A site that was told, for instance, that a certain proportion of its users were minors—even if those minors were lying to get access—could be sued by the state. The site might be held liable even if there was one minor user they knew about, perhaps one they’d repeatedly kicked off.
The bill still effectively regulates the entire internet that isn’t age-gated. KOSA is fundamentally a censorship bill, so we’re concerned about its effects on any website or service—whether they’re meant to serve solely adults, solely kids, or both.
Pushing A Chronological Feed Won’t Help
Another significant change to the bill is a longer amendment from Sen. John Thune (R-SD), who railed against “filter bubbles” during the markup hearing. Thune’s amendment requires larger platforms to provide an algorithm that doesn’t use any user data whatsoever. The amendment would prevent websites and apps from using even basic information, like what city a person lives in, to decide what kind of information to prioritize.
The Thune amendment is meant to push users towards a chronological feed, which Sen. Thune called during the hearing a “normal chronological feed.” There’s nothing wrong with online information being presented chronologically for those who want it. But just as we wouldn’t let politicians rearrange a newspaper in a particular order, we shouldn’t let them rearrange blogs or other websites. It’s a heavy-handed move to stifle the editorial independence of web publishers.
There’s also no evidence that chronological feeds make for better or healthier content consumption. A recently published major study on Facebook data specifically studied the effects of a chronological feed, and found that a chronological feed “increased the share of content from designated untrustworthy sources by more than two-thirds relative to the Algorithmic Feed.”
KOSA Could Be Replaced With An Actually Good Bill On Targeted Ads
A small part of KOSA deals with targeted advertising. It would require disclosures about things like “why the minor is being targeted with a particular advertisement.”
This part of the bill is actually a positive step—protecting users’ privacy, rather than imposing censorship on the content they can access. But as the only privacy-protective part of the bill, it’s pathetically small.
At this point in the internet’s history, we need more than mild disclosure requirements and more studies about behavioral ads. They should be banned altogether. And there’s no reason to limit the ban to minors; behavioral ads are tracking the mouse clicks and browsing history of users of all ages.
A bill that worked to protect internet users by limiting tracking and protecting privacy would be great. That’s not KOSA, which barely even gestures at privacy protections, while offering politicians and police a comprehensive suite of censorship options.
Other KOSA Amendments Are Minor
- The amendment marked Lummis 1 specifically exempts a VPN.
- The Lummis 2 amendment slightly expands a required government study to look at effects on small businesses.
- The Cruz 1 amendment specifies that a wireless messaging exemption includes SMS and MMS messages.
- The Cruz 2 amendment changes the word “gender” to “sex.”
- The Lujan 1 amendment changes a part of the bill that allows “geolocation” data to be used in certain ways to only allow the use of city-level data.
- The Lujan 2 amendment expands the government study portion of the bill to include non-English language users.
Overall, these small changes to a flawed bill don’t change the basic fact that KOSA is a censorship bill that will harm the rights of both adult and minor users. We oppose it, and urge you to contact your congressperson about it today.