An internet reform bill with bipartisan support, including from President Joe Biden, could have dire consequences for LGBT youth in Texas.
The bill is called the Kids Online Safety Act or KOSA. Introduced by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), it would give state attorneys general the right to sue internet companies over content deemed harmful to minors. Blumenthal crafted the bill after whistleblowers in 2021 revealed that companies like Meta and YouTube were aware that some of their content was contributing to increased mental illness and distress in young users, but chose to continue allowing such content regardless.
Biden gave the legislation a boost in his State of the Union address earlier this year.
“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,” he said.
The problem with KOSA, as it is with so much tech legislation, is that its wording is too vague to protect necessary speech. Worded as the bill is right now, it could be used to drive LGBT youth resources off platforms, as well as websites dedicated to helping children find help for eating disorders and other mental health issues.
Groups like the Heritage Foundation have already publicly stated they intend to use KOSA to censor content about being LGBT.
“Keeping trans content away from children is protecting kids,” the group said in a May tweet. “No child should be conditioned to think that permanently damaging their healthy bodies to try to become something they can never be is even remotely a good idea.”
KOSA implements a “duty of care” responsibility on tech companies, meaning they are obligated to take a pro-active approach to removing content. That duty is so vaguely defined that any sufficiently motivated attorney general could decree any content they liked unsuitable within their state. The think tank TechFreedom wrote a letter to lawmakers explaining how devastating this could be for minors on the internet trying to find support.
“The unconstitutionality of KOSA’s duty of care is highlighted by its vague and unmeetable nature.” It read. “Platforms cannot ‘prevent and mitigate’ the complex psychological issues that arise from circumstances across an individual’s entire life, which may manifest in their online activity. These circumstances mean that material harmful to one minor may be helpful or even lifesaving to another, particularly when it concerns eating disorders, self-harm, drug use, and bullying. Minors are individuals, with differing needs, emotions, and predispositions. Yet KOSA would require platforms to undertake an unworkable one-size-fits-all approach to deeply personal issues, thus ultimately serving the best interests of no minors.”
While there have been some amendments to KOSA to tighten the language, the duty of care aspect ultimately makes it very risky for tech platforms that Republican attorneys general disagree with. Considering the widespread effort to paint LGBT people as sexually groomers of minors, a lawsuit under KOSA banning any mention of being LGBT where a minor could access it is inevitable.
Currently, the bill has both Democratic and Republican sponsors in the Senate, as well as the support of Biden. Should it pass in the upper chamber, it is likely to also survive in the House thanks to the many right-wing anti-LGBT groups supporting the bill. Should it pass, LGBT Texans may find themselves completely silenced online.