May 4, 2023

Kids Online Safety Act reintroduced in U.S. Senate

The internet can be a dangerous place for young people, especially social media platforms where children and adults can interact with minimal or nonexistent barriers.

To help combat the dangers children may face online, Democratic U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján and others reintroduced the Kids Online Safety Act which was sponsored by Connecticut Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal and Tennessee Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn.

The bill, however, is controversial and many privacy, tech and LGBTQ+ groups oppose the bill, and they say it could actually cause harm to minors by restricting access to information based on what state attorneys general determine to be harmful.

This comes as states throughout the country target abortion access and LGBTQ+ rights.

“Big Tech knows that the algorithms they use to maximize time spent online also lead to harm, particularly for children,” Luján said in a statement supporting the bill. “It’s clear that we must do everything we can to protect kids online by empowering them and their parents with tools to protect their mental health and well-being. This bipartisan legislation is a step in the right direction by requiring social media companies to make their platforms safer by default, placing the power back in the hands of the user.”

Children are defined in the bill as those under age 13 and minors are under age 17.

Luján serves as the Chair of the Subcommittee on Communications, Media, and Broadband. 

The bill seeks to require social media platforms to provide minors with options to protect their information, disable addictive product features and to opt out of algorithm-based recommendations, according to the sponsors’ summary of the bill.

The bill also seeks to give children, parents and schools the means to report content that could or did harm to a child, makes platforms responsible for preventing and mitigating content that could be harmful to minors such as “promotion of suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation, and unlawful products for minors (e.g. gambling and alcohol),” the summary states.

The bill  also seeks to require social media platforms to do independent audits of risk to minors, the platforms’ compliance with the Act and if the platform is working to prevent harmful content from reaching children.

The bill  also seeks to allow academics and public interest organizations access to “ critical datasets from social media platforms to foster research regarding harms to the safety and well-being of minors,” the summary states.

Some technology groups have criticized the bill as overbroad and likely unconstitutional.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation says it “would increase surveillance and restrict access to information in the name of protecting children online.” The EFF says the bill would “put the tools of censorship in the hands of attorneys general, and would greatly endanger the rights, and safety, of young people online.”

The previous version of the bill faced opposition from dozens of civil rights and LGBTQ+ advocacy groups.

TechFreedom Counsel Ari Cohn says that the bill has not changed from its previous version and would actually “in fact harm minors.”

“Their unwillingness to engage with these concerns in good faith is borne out by their superficial revisions that change nothing about the ultimate effects of the bill,” Cohn said.

A similar bill was proposed during the 2023 New Mexico Legislative Session in SB 319 which would have enacted the New Mexico Age-Appropriate Design Code Act.

This Act would have required businesses to comply with standards that consider the best interests of any children who might access their goods and services.

The bill was passed unanimously in the Senate Judiciary Committee but did not proceed from there.

The Kids Online Safety Act  has  25 co-sponsors and is supported by advocacy and technology groups including Common Sense Media, American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Compass, Eating Disorders Coalition, Fairplay, Mental Health America, and Digital Progress Institute, according to a news release about the Act.