Bad News For The Internet: Congress Looking To Sneak In Dangerous ‘Save The Kids!’ Internet Bill Into Year-End Omnibus

from the this-is-a-dangerous-bill department

Over the last week or so, I keep hearing about a big push among activists and lawmakers to try to get the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) into the year-end “must pass” omnibus bill. Earlier this week, one of the main parents pushing for the bill went on Jake Tapper’s show on CNN and stumped for it. And, the latest report from Axios confirms that lawmakers are looking to include it in the lameduck omnibus, or possibly the NDAA (despite it having absolutely nothing to do with defense spending).

The likeliest path forward for the bills is for them to be added to the year-end defense or spending bill. “We’re at a point where a combination of the victims, and the technology, make it absolutely mandatory 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 this week at an event in Washington. “I think it could actually go — it’s one of those very rare pieces of legislation that is getting bipartisan support.”

Anyway, let’s be clear about all this: the people pushing for KOSA are legitimately worried about the safety of kids online. And many of those involved have stories of real trauma. But their stumping for KOSA is misguided. It will not 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 detailed just how dangerous this bill is, in that it tries to deal with “protecting children” by pushing websites to more actively monitor everyone. Many of the people pushing for the bill, including the one who went on CNN this week, talk about children who have died by suicide. Which is, obviously, quite tragic. But all of it seems to assume (falsely) that suicide prevention is simply a matter of internet companies somehow… spying on their kids more. It’s not that simple. Indeed, the greater surveillance has way more consequences for tons of other people, including kids who also need to learn the value of privacy.

If you dig into the language of KOSA, you quickly realize how problematic it would be in practice. It uses extremely vague and fuzzy language that will create dangerous problems. In earlier versions of the bill, people quickly pointed out that some of the surveillance provisions would force companies to reveal information about kids to their parents — potentially including things that might “out” LGBTQ kids to their parents. That should be seen as problematic for obvious reasons. The bill was amended to effectively say “but don’t do that,” but still leaves things vague enough that companies are caught in an impossible position.

Now the end result is basically “don’t have anyone on your platform end up doing something bad.” But, how does that work in practice?

Advocates for the bill keep saying “it just imposes a ‘duty of care’” on platforms. But that misunderstands basically everything about everything. A “duty of care” is one of those things that sounds good to people who have no idea how anything works. As we’ve noted, a duty of care is the “friendly sounding way” to threaten free speech and innovation. That’s because whether or not you met your obligations is determined after something bad happened. And it will involve a long and costly legal battle to determine (in heightened circumstances, often involving a horrible incident) whether or not a website could have magically prevented a bad thing from happening. But, of course, in that context, the bad thing will have already happened, making it difficult to separate the website from the bad thing, and making it impossible to see whether or not the “bad thing” could have been reasonably foreseen.

But, at the very least, it means that any time anything bad happens that is even remotely connected to a website, the website gets sued and has to convince a court that it took appropriate measures. What that means in practice is that websites get ridiculously restrictive to avoid any possible bad thing from happening — in the process limiting tons of good stuff as well.

The whole bill is designed to do two very silly things: make it nearly impossible for websites to offer something new and, even worse, the bill looks to offload any blame on any bad thing on those websites. 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.

As I noted a couple 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 happen in the world. And sometimes there’s nothing to blame for the bad thing happening.

I don’t talk about it much, but in high school a friend died by suicide. It’s not worth getting into the details, but the suicide was done in a manner designed to make someone else feel terrible as well (and cast a pall of “blame” on that person — which was traumatic for all involved). But, one thing that was an important lesson is that if you spend all your time looking to blame people for someone’s death by suicide, you’re not going to do much good, and, in fact, it creates this unfortunate scenario where it encourages others to consider suicide as a way to “get back” at others. That’s not helpful at all. For anyone.

Unfortunately, people do die by suicide. And we should be focusing more effort on helping people get through difficult times, and making sure that therapy and counseling is available to all who need it. But trying to retroactively hold social media companies to account for those cases, because they enabled people to talk to each other, throws out so much useful and good — including all of the people who were helped to move away from potential suicidal ideation by finding a community or a tribe who better understood them. Or those who found resources to help them through those difficult times.

Under a bill like KOSA all of that becomes more difficult, while actively encouraging greater surveillance and less privacy. It’s not a good approach.

And it’s especially ridiculous for such a bill to be rushed through via a must-pass bill, rather than having the kind of debate and discussion that such a serious issue not only deserves, but requires.

But, of course, almost no one wants to speak out against KOSA, because the media and politicians trot out parents who went through a truly traumatic experience, and no one wants to be seen as the person who is said to be standing in the way of that. But the simple fact is that KOSA will not magically prevent suicides. It might actually lead to more. And it will do many other damaging things in the meantime, including ramping up surveillance, limiting the ability of websites to innovate, and making it much more difficult for young people to find and connect with actual support and friends.

Filed Under: for the children, kids online safety act, kosa, ndaa, omnibus bill, suicide, surveillance