Lawmakers are looking to include two bills aimed at increasing children's online safety in a year-end omnibus bill. The only problem? The bill likely won't increase internet safety—or privacy—for kids.
According to Techdirt, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers is attempting to include the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) in a year-end "must pass" omnibus bill, ramping up the bill's chance of passage. While KOSA has been touted as a bill that would provide much-needed accountability for tech companies by regulating their interactions with children, the bill would hardly accomplish this goal. Instead of making the internet a safer place for kids, KOSA would enact confusing, vague regulations upon tech companies that would encourage even more surveillance of users, and it would offset blame for bad outcomes away from parents and upon tech companies.
KOSA was introduced in February, and it requires that platforms protect minors from online "harms." This directive is obviously vague, mandating that platforms "act in the best interests" of the minors that use them. The bill's proposed regulations give some insight into what exactly acting in the "best interests" of internet-using children entails.
The bill mandates a litany of privacy and parental control measures. For example, it would require that "covered platforms" (internet services "likely" to be used by minors) make it harder for outside individuals to view a minor's personal data or to personally contact them. The bill would also require platforms to limit features that encourage minors to spend more time on the service—and it even goes so far as to require that platforms limit the time that kids can spend on their service.
Under KOSA, platforms would also be required to give parents the ability to restrict their children's time and activity on certain platforms, considerably increasing parents' control over their children's online lives. The platforms would also have to provide parents with "a readily accessible and easy-to-use means to submit reports of harms to a minor."
What are these "harms?" KOSA describes them as essentially mental-illness-promoting content such as "promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other matters that pose a risk to physical and mental health of a minor." The bill also defines sexual exploitation, online bullying, marketing of age-restricted or illegal services (like drugs or alcohol), and physical harm as covered "harms." Less scary-sounding practices, like deceptive marketing and "patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction-like behaviors," are included as well.
While KOSA was intended to make the internet safer for kids, it is unlikely to fulfill such lofty aims. Instead, the bill will encourage tech companies to enact even more surveillance measures that will likely have unintended consequences. As Techdirt's Mike Masnick wrote after the bill's introduction in February, the bill attempts to tackle complex issues like suicide and eating disorders "and reduces to block it all. Which is just dangerous. Because kids who are interested in suicide or eating disorders… are still going to be interested in those things." Masnick argues that increased surveillance won't actually help troubled kids. Instead, it's likely to encourage them to be more secretive and find information from "sketchier and sketchier websites, with fewer controls."
With KOSA seemingly likely to pass, Masnick returned on Thursday to highlight the bill's major issues, including how it could be used to sue tech platforms any time a child is "harmed"—even if the harm isn't clearly the platform's fault. "The bill looks to offload any blame on any bad thing on those websites," Masnick wrote. "It especially seeks to remove blame from parents for failing to do their job as a parent. It is the ultimate 'let's just blame the internet for anything bad' bill."
The final push to pass KOSA is underway. However, while its supporters praise the bill as necessary to keep children safe online, its strict and vague requirements should trouble anyone concerned about online surveillance—and its possible effects on vulnerable kids.