of the this-is-a-dangerous-bill dept
Over the past week, I’ve been hearing about a major push by activists and lawmakers to include the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) in the year-end “must pass” omnibus law. Earlier this week, one of the primary parents pushing the bill walked on Jake Tapper’s show on CNN and stumbled for it. And Axios’ recent report confirms that lawmakers are trying to put it on the Lameduck omnibus, or possibly the NDAA (although it has absolutely nothing to do with defense spending).
The most likely path for the bills is to add them to the defense or year-end spending bill. “We’re at a point where a combination of sacrifice and technology makes it absolutely imperative that we move forward,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a sponsor of the Kids Online Safety Act, told reporters on Capitol Hill Tuesday.
“I think it’s going to move,” Stephen Balkam, CEO of the Family Online Safety Institute, said at an event in Washington this week. “I think it might actually work — it’s one of those very rare bills that gets bipartisan support.”
Anyway, let’s be clear about all of this: the people pushing for KOSA are rightly concerned about child safety online. And many of those involved have stories of real trauma. But her stumble for KOSA is misguided. It doesn’t help protect children. It will make things much more dangerous for children. It’s an extraordinarily dangerous bill for kids (and adults).
Back in February, I outlined how dangerous this law is as it attempts to address “child protection” by forcing websites to do so monitor all more actively. Many of the people pushing for the law, including the one who went on CNN this week, are talking about children who have died by suicide. Which of course is quite tragic. But all of this seems to assume (wrongly) that suicide prevention is simply a matter of internet companies spying on their kids more. It is not so easy. In fact, the increased surveillance has many more consequences for many other people, including children, who also need to learn the value of privacy.
If you dig into the language of KOSA, you quickly realize how problematic that would be in practice. It uses extremely vague and fuzzy language that will create dangerous problems. In previous versions of the bill, it was quick to point out that some of the surveillance provisions would force companies to share information about children with their parents — potentially including things that LGBTQ children could “out” to their parents. This should be considered problematic for obvious reasons. The bill was amended to effectively say “but don’t do this,” but things still remain so vague that companies are trapped in an impossible position.
Now the bottom line is basically “nobody on your platform has to end up doing anything bad”. But how does that work in practice?
Proponents of the bill consistently say that “it merely imposes a ‘duty of care’ on platforms.” But this is fundamentally misunderstood all around all. A “duty of care” is one of those things that sounds good to people who have no idea how something works. As we have already established, due diligence is the “friendly-sounding way” to threaten freedom of expression and innovation. Because it is determined whether you have fulfilled your obligations or not after something bad happened. And it will take a long and costly legal battle to determine (in aggravated circumstances, often involving a horrific incident) whether a website could have magically prevented something bad from happening. But of course, in this context, the bad has already happened, making it difficult to separate the site from the bad and impossible to tell whether or not the “bad” could have reasonably been foreseen.
But at the very least, this means that whenever something bad happens that’s even remotely related to a website, the website will be sued and a court will have to convince a court that they took appropriate action. In practice, that means websites get ridiculously restrictive to avoid possible bad things—while also restricting tons of good things in the process.
The whole bill aims to do two very stupid things: make it almost impossible for websites to offer anything new, and worse, the bill seems to shift all blame any bad thing on these sites. In particular, it seeks to remove guilt from parents when they fail in their parenting responsibilities. It’s the ultimate “let’s just blame the internet for everything bad” reckoning.
As I noted a few months ago, the Internet is not Disneyland. We shouldn’t want to make it Disneyland because if we do, we lose a lot. Bad things are happening in the world. And sometimes there’s nothing to blame when something bad happens.
I don’t talk about it much, but in high school a friend committed suicide. It’s not worth going into detail, but the suicide was committed in a way designed to make someone else feel horrible too (and give that person a veil of ‘blame’ – which was traumatic for everyone involved). But one thing that was an important lesson is that if you spend all your time blaming people for someone’s death by suicide, you’re not going to do much good, and indeed it creates this unfortunate scenario in which it encourages others to view suicide as a way of “holding back” on others. That’s not helpful at all. For each.
Unfortunately, people die by suicide. And we should focus more on helping people get through difficult times and making sure therapy and counseling are available to those who need it. But trying to retroactively hold social media companies accountable for these cases for allowing people to talk to each other throws so much good and good on the table — including all the people who were helped to break away from resolve potential suicidal thoughts by finding a community or tribe that understood them better. Or those who have found resources to help them through these trying times.
Under a bill like KOSA, all of this becomes more difficult while actively promoting more surveillance and less privacy. That’s not a good approach.
And it’s particularly ridiculous that such a law should be rushed through a must-pass law instead of having the kind of debate and discussion that such a serious issue not only deserves, but requires.
But of course, almost nobody wants to speak out against KOSA, as the media and politicians are shouting out parents who have gone through a truly traumatic experience, and nobody wants to be seen as the person allegedly standing in the way of it. But the simple fact is that KOSA will not magically prevent suicides. It could actually lead to more. And it will do many other harmful things in the meantime, including increasing surveillance, restricting sites from being able to innovate, and making it harder to find and connect with actual support and friends.
Filed under: for the children, Children’s Online Safety Act, Kosa, NDAA, omnibus bill, suicide, surveillance