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 dept

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 surveil 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 counselling 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.

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

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

We’ll make the internet have a greater duty of care than we impose on parents.

Period, thats the bill.

Feel good, does nothing right legislation that will end up screwing things up even more.
This same thing repeat itself over & over & over and despite the best intentions it ends up making things worse… and then they pass the next one & never fix what they made worse last time.

Law that give you great soundbites to parrot rarely are good laws.

T.F. Johnson says:

…So the real question is, what do we do to stop this? I’ve made a post on Tumblr telling people to call their senators to nix this bill, and it’s getting a lot of traction, but I’m terrified it won’t be enough.

Because, god, I am sick of people in comments like these saying we’re all doomed or that there’s nothing we can do bluh bluh bluh, just shut your holes and actually help out for once in your miserable lives…

Cat_Daddy (profile) says:

Re:

Unfortunately, not a lot we can do. The only optimistic thing is that they run out of time to put KOSA into the end year budget, but that’s sadly wishful thinking. I wish there was a rule that prevents bills from being put into the omnibus bill that hasn’t been voted out of both judiciaries. But I’m just rambling at this point.

Will KOSA be the end of the internet? No, I don’t think so. But make no mistake, KOSA is still dangerous and paradoxical. It isn’t just harmful for websites; but ironically, It will hurt kids the most.

T.F. Johnson says:

Re: Re: Re:2

I mean, but hang on, because that’s a good question.

Because, everything but Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was basically crushed in court as a violation of free speech, and this act seems to have a lot of the same problems via chilling of speech.

But on the other hand, the court system’s gotten a lot more… unhinged as of late, so I wonder how plausible that is?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I’d go further than a rule/law prohibiting the use of the omnibus bills to pass unrelated laws: I’d codify it in a constitutional amendment.

There’s a lot of case law that could strike down KOSA and the very similar California law as unconstitutional:

-Unreasonable restrictions on adult speech and internet use (Reno v. ACLU)
-With regards to cyberbullying, the actions of a third party are not reasonably foreseeable as a product defect (James v. Meow Media, striking down Paducah school shooting victims’ lawsuit against video game companies)
-With suicides, cannot establish causation or foreseeability on particularly vulnerable people (Watters v. TSR, striking down lawsuit blaming Dungeons & Dragons for suicide)

Cat_Daddy (profile) says:

*Sigh* Tis the Season for Heightened Anxiety (falalalalalala)

It astounds me. The next congress that is going to be sworn will get significantly little done, with the House going to be taken over by the asylum patients. And yet, of all the serious issues that Democrats should focus on, things like funding the NDAA, dealing with the approaching Debt Ceiling nonsense, safeguarding same-sex and biracial marriage, this is what they choose to focus on. Some surface-level moral-shilling bullshit that you could’ve debated any time of the year that will end up exasperating nonissues into real problems for no reason but for brownie points. This is how precious time is going to be wasted? On this? The chaos isn’t in two months, it’s already here.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…and just to remind everyone how silly things are at the moment, that bill was voted against by Mitch McConnell, who is in a bi-racial marriage.

We can hope for a lot of things with the midterms having gone historically quite well and there being a clear public pushback against some of the worst excesses of certain types, but it’s clear that absolute nonsense is going to be making the headlines again for a couple of years.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Like a jew asking 'What would Hitler have wanted?' in a positive way

There’s nothing quite so hypocritical or absurd as people who would have been considered property(as it relates to blacks) or second-class citizens at best(as it relates to women) by the very people they are idolizing waxing on about how the law should be based around what the country’s founders thought.

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4

Thomas’s wife was one of the people spreading QAnon conspiracy theories about “elites” secretly running the country against the will of the people… while married to a Supreme Court judge who regularly opposes the popular view and texting the White House Chief Of Staff demanding that an election be overturned.

I’m not sure what planet they’re on, let alone whether they’re simply hypocritical relating to ours.

Thad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3

The originalist argument is that slavery was abolished the “right” way, through amending the Constitution. The originalist claim is that if the federal government is to grant rights not explicitly granted in the Constitution, it should be done by amending the Constitution, not through Supreme Court rulings reinterpreting the language in a way it wouldn’t have been interpreted when it was written.

It’s a bunch of horseshit, of course. Originalists have no problem using the SCOTUS to reinterpret the Constitution to grant rights they’re in favor of — private gun ownership, for example.

Justices are human and make their own judgements. Everyone has their own biases; no one is truly impartial. Though some justices are less impartial than others, and they tend to be the ones who throw around terms like “originalism” to justify their own biases.

Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

safeguarding same-sex and biracial marriage

FYI: That bill only guarantees federal recognition of such marriages at the state level. It doesn’t actually prevent states from passing bans on those types of marriages⁠—and it also doesn’t strip the judiciary of the power to overturn either Obergefell, Loving, or both. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints endorses a bill like that one, you should consider whether the bill does anything even remotely useful.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Another 'Parenting is hard, you do it' bill

Oh they want to prevent tragedies like suicides? Awesome, after five seconds of thought I can think of several ways to do that:

-Work to de-stigmatize mental health issues such that going to a psychiatrist for mental problems is seen as no more ‘shameful’ than going to see a ‘regular’ doctor for something going wrong with the rest of your body.

-Make mental health treatment affordable and more easily accessible by using public service ads to tell people about resources to both find and help pay for treatment in their area.

-Provide resources for kids still living with their parents if those parents are part if not the source of the problems, allowing kids to talk to someone about their issues without having to worry that it will be spread beyond those two people.

Those are just a few ideas that took less than a minute to come up with, if they want to address mental health issues, whether in general or with a greater focus on kids then there are ways they could do that effectively. ‘Make platforms do the job of parents, ensure that kids are never not being watched and then blame platforms if they get it wrong’ is not one of those, and is instead just a pathetic attempt to shift all the blame and work onto the least responsible party.

Anonymous Coward says:

It’s obviously not the responsibility of PARENTS and there should be much higher standards for the global pool of paid bad actors online.

Not all life happens online though, so let’s ban kids living their lives. Words have had consequences, so we should ban all them too.

And you. You were a kid. You’re banned. You’re not allowed to grow up, and all situations leading to learning opportunities are banned.

Cat_Daddy (profile) says:

The PATRIOT ACT JR. Paradox

Congress: okay, so we have to protect kids online and their privacy online from the websites online without . But the only way to protect the kids online and their privacy online is to know if they’re a kid online. And the only way we can know if they’re a kid online and protect their privacy online and therefore protect the kids online and their privacy is that we need to watch them. So we can protect the children online and their privacy online is to survey them very closely and make sure the kids online make the right choices and eliminate the bad choices. And the only way we can know about these bad choices is by holding their hand. But we can’t hold hands through computers, (found this out yesterday that they’re not portals, ReBoot lied to me!), so we have to have the websites do it for us. But the only way to force websites to protect the children online is by force them to be sued if they don’t. And that is how we protect the kids online.

Ah Yes, a flawless plan.

GHB (profile) says:

Is it just me or parents really don't understand the internet?

I still remember California’s Age Appropriate Design act.

The internet is not a daycare, and it shouldn’t be. Blaming websites is like blaming the owner of a playground if a child slips and fall during rain.

Also, surveillance? I’ve seen Child Monitors getting hacked, combine this with data breaches and you have a big disaster.

Blake Stacey (profile) says:

How is the tiny Mastodon instance where I have an account supposed to issue an annual

public report identifying the foreseeable risks of harm to minors based on an independent, third-party audit conducted through reasonable inspection of the covered platform and describe the prevention and mitigation measures taken to address such risks.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Politician: Oh no no no, our demands and the law that resulted from it are completely reasonable and viable so any platform that shuts down as a result is doing so because they refuse to do the minimal amount of work required to comply with it and has nothing to do with our words and law. If they’d just nerded harder they could have kept their site/platform running, that they shut down is entirely on them.

nasch (profile) says:

Re:

I thought it would have the usual threshold of users or revenue or something, but apparently not. This is the entire definition of “covered platform”:

The term “covered platform” means a commercial software application or electronic service that connects to the internet and that is used, or is reasonably likely to be used, by a minor.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re:

If I’m reading that right that’s any and all of them that have the audacity to try to make money from what they’re doing, and that assuming ‘commercial software application’ doesn’t include things like hosting platforms/services which would scoop up even personal websites, so it would probably be quicker to list the number of sites that wouldn’t’ be affected.

morganwick (profile) says:

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.

Seems like it should be simple enough to warn about KOSA potentially leading to more suicides rather than less? But of course, the problem isn’t just the media’s tendency for emotional appeals, but its almost willful cluelessness about the Internet and refusal to platform voices that know anything about it, almost like what they’re really trying to do is tear down or subvert the technology that broke their twentieth-century business models…

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