LGBTQ Agenda: Civil liberties, queer groups upset with bipartisan social media bill

  • by John Ferrannini, Assistant Editor
  • Tuesday February 14, 2023
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants the Kids Online Safety Act reintroduced in Congress this month. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer wants the Kids Online Safety Act reintroduced in Congress this month. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Some LGBTQ and civil liberties groups are sounding the alarm about bipartisan federal legislation intended to protect minors online, which they say will empower Republican-led state governments to clamp down on freedom of speech.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) is pushing for a June vote on the Kids Online Safety Act, Bloomberg reported January 27, which also stated the majority leader wants reintroduction of the legislation this month and markups by March.

The legislation would require "applications or services that connect to the internet and are likely to be used by minors" to "act in the best interest of a minor using its application or service. This includes a duty to prevent and mitigate heightened risks of harms that may arise from using the platform," according to its summary authored by the Library of Congress.

President Joe Biden gave a nod to the legislation during his State of the Union address February 7.

"We must finally hold social media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," Biden said. "And it's time to pass bipartisan legislation to stop Big Tech from collecting personal data on kids and teenagers online, ban targeted advertising to children, and impose stricter limits on the personal data these companies collect on all of us."

Enforcement would be left to the Federal Trade Commission or to the states.

It's that part that concerns some LGBTQ groups, which joined civil liberties groups in a brief letter criticizing the proposal last year. (The bill was never voted on and will have to be reintroduced this session of Congress.)

"We, the undersigned organizations, believe that the privacy, online safety, and digital well-being of children should be protected," the letter stated. "However, S. 3663, the 'Kids Online Safety Act' (KOSA), would undermine those goals for all people, but especially children, by effectively forcing providers to use invasive filtering and monitoring tools; jeopardizing private, secure communications; incentivizing increased data collection on children and adults; and undermining the delivery of critical services to minors by public agencies like schools. We oppose this bill."

Signatories included the American Civil Liberties Union, Equality California, and Fight for the Future.

EQCA Executive Director Tony Hoang told the Bay Area Reporter, "KOSA's backers are likely well-meaning, but excessive parental surveillance of teens' internet use could jeopardize the privacy and safety of some of our most vulnerable youth, especially queer and trans young people.

"Older minors have their own independent rights to privacy and access to information on gender-affirming care, sexual health, and simply connecting with people who identify with them — especially if their families and communities are unsupportive," Hoang continued. "KOSA could have damaging unintended consequences for young people. Congress should focus on ways to increase support for LGBTQ+ youth, not removing access to resources at a time when the LGBTQ+ community is under attack."

Evan Greer, a transgender woman who is deputy director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights nonprofit, stated that the duty of care ("act in the best interest") is very vague, and anti-LGBTQ attorneys general may weaponize the legislation to shut down pro-LGBTQ speech.

Already an article was published on the website of the conservative Heritage Foundation in favor of the legislation, saying "a step in the right direction would be to prohibit the sexual exploitation of minors and the promotion of content that poses risks to minors' physical and mental health (which the Kids Online Safety Act would do). If we seek to protect kids online, we must guard against the harms of sexual and transgender content."

Greer stated, "There are very real ways that Big Tech companies are doing harm, but this bill won't fix them."

"For many LGBTQ young people, online community and resources are a lifeline," Greer stated. "KOSA would subject young people to more surveillance, and runs the risk of cutting them off entirely from affirming content related to positive and healthy sexual relationships, sexual health and STI prevention, consent, reproductive health care, gender-affirming care, and more."

Greer stated that "everything indicates that this bill is coming back," and this has serious implications for civil liberties.

"KOSA is a fundamentally flawed bill because it attempts to involve the government in dictating not just platform design choices but their decision-making around user speech and content," Greer added. "The only way for this bill to be salvaged would be to completely remove all sections related to content and content recommendation, and focus instead on cracking down on abusive practices like autoplay, infinite scroll, [and] invasive notifications."

Schumer's office, the ACLU, and the Heritage Foundation did not respond to requests for comment for this report.

LGBTQ Agenda is an online column that appears weekly. Got a tip on queer news? Contact John Ferrannini at [email protected]

Due to the Presidents Day holiday, the LGBTQ Agenda column will return Tuesday, February 28.

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