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Republicans Are Fooling Democrats on Kids’ Online Safety

A bill before Congress would help the far right advance its ideological war—but Democrats apparently haven’t noticed or don’t care.

Senator Blackburn, a woman with blonde hair, sits down next to Senator Blumenthal, who is standing and looking at her with a smile. Blumenthal's name plaque is pictured between them.
Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Committee Chairman Senator Richard Blumenthal and Senator Marsha Blackburn take their seats for a Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, Product Safety, and Data Security hearing on Protecting Kids Online: Snapchat, TikTok, and YouTube on October 26, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

The first thing you need to know about the latest bill in Congress meant to protect children on the internet is that one of its co-sponsors has been waging this fight against tech platforms since the days of MySpace. This bill, the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, concerns children who were not yet born at the dawn of social media, whose parents could once have jockeyed to remain in each other’s Top 8, while their own parents in turn may have sounded the alarm about such newfound dangers as “emo” and camera phones.

For nearly as long as there have been websites, Congress has proposed laws to control what kids can see and do online. KOSA, in turn, has been billed as a new way to protect kids from a more pervasive and more dangerous internet. But in reality, KOSA hands powerful tools to the far right to further wage its war on kids, whether it’s censoring education on racism or demonizing queer and trans youth. Meanwhile, Democrats who support KOSA appear to either not have noticed or not minded.

In the 2000s, Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal called social media sites a “playground for predators.” Blumenthal’s rhetoric hasn’t changed much in 15 years: Now he and his allies in this effort on the Hill speak of the platforms themselves as preying on children’s well-being. “What we’re doing in this bill is empowering those children and their parents to take back control and the power over their lives online,” Blumenthal said in February of last year, when introducing KOSA with Senator Marsha Blackburn, a Republican from Tennessee. The bipartisan effort has rather cannily made use of the well-deserved criticism of unaccountable tech platforms—Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok—in order to rally support for increased surveillance and censorship. Last week, in a unanimous voice vote, the Senate Commerce Committee moved to bring KOSA to the full Senate, which could take up the bill when it returns in September.

As proposed, KOSA would require online platforms to “take reasonable measures” to “prevent and mitigate” harms to minors such as “anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal behaviors,” along with “patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction-like behaviors” and “physical violence, online bullying, and harassment of the minor.” State attorneys general would be the arbiters of alleged failures to “prevent and mitigate” such harms, with the power to impose penalties on platforms. Such actions could be initiated by the attorneys general themselves, if they feel that any resident of their state is “threatened or adversely affected by the engagement of any person in a practice that violates this Act.”

Some progressive supporters of KOSA describe the bill as a way to protect kids from the harm platforms can cause. Yet despite how it has been marketed, KOSA is ultimately concerned with policing the content and conduct of internet users, not with addressing the relatively unaccountable power of the tech platforms themselves. In fact, KOSA would put more power in the hands of platforms, which will continue to decide—and with no greater transparency or input from us—what kind of users and what kind of content are allowed. The standards that platforms will use to make such decisions are ultimately set by state attorneys general, not by the public—even if it’s the public who will live with the results.

To date, dozens of civil society groups have opposed KOSA due to the risks it poses to those who would be harmed by concentrating decision-making in this way. A December 2022 letter to Senate leadership, signed by groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the American Library Association, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, GLAAD, and the National Center for Transgender Equality, warns that should KOSA pass, “online services would face substantial pressure to over-moderate, including from state Attorneys General seeking to make political points about what kind of information is appropriate for young people.” The letter also notes that right now, when “books with LGBTQ+ themes are being banned from school libraries and people providing healthcare to trans children are being falsely accused of ‘grooming,’ KOSA would cut off another vital avenue of access to information for vulnerable youth.”

Sarah Philips, an organizer with the tech and internet policy group Fight for the Future, living in Texas, wrote in July for Teen Vogue about the danger KOSA would mean in her state. Texas’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, has described gender-affirming health care as child abuse, launching efforts to remove trans kids from their supportive families. “The school district I grew up in is currently under investigation by the ACLU for discriminating against trans students,” Philips wrote. “My teacher friends approach civil rights lessons with anxiety, fearful of triggering outraged reactions from legislators and parents. We don’t live in a country where there is a consensus about what is harmful to children, so how could the government determine what’s appropriate for every kid?” KOSA co-sponsor Senator Blackburn herself hails from such a state: Tennessee banned gender-affirming care for minors earlier this year and was one of the first states to limit classroom discussions of slavery and racism. Senator Blackburn has boasted of her own commitment to ban “critical race theory” and the 1619 Project from Tennessee schools.

For KOSA supporters on the right, like the think tank the Heritage Foundation, defining “harm” to children in this way—aligning with the broader reactionary movement to silence any opponents of the white, straight, and cis patriarchal order—is precisely the benefit of the bill. A 2022 Heritage report titled “Combating Big Tech’s Totalitarianism” argues that tech companies are engaged in “efforts to tear at the moral fabric of our society at any cost, starting in kindergarten.”

The report approvingly cites anti-trans campaigner Abigail Shrier, author of Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, and her documentation of “social media’s influence on social contagions of the moment.” Here, the report is referring to the discredited, pseudoscientific diagnosis of “rapid onset gender dysphoria,” which has in turn fueled a conspiracy theory that “big tech turns kids trans,” as a commentary also posted by Heritage in 2022 claimed.

Democrats who say they support trans kids, though, seem to be unalarmed by the reasons a group like Heritage might back this bill. When President Biden tells trans kids that “your president has your back” during a State of the Union address and then says something like, “We’ve got to hold these platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit,” as he did last week on the subject of KOSA and related internet bills, the president who “has your back” now also sounds uncomfortably like he’s parroting the anti-trans rhetoric coming from groups like Heritage and their allies.

Curiously, in the same 2022 report, Heritage warned against tech policy that is promoted as a tool to protect children being used as a pretext for censorship or otherwise being weaponized—against them and others on the right. This concern, though, has not prevented the group from supporting legislation like KOSA. As the director of Heritage’s tech policy center argued in the group’s publication in May, conservatives need not fear KOSA. “Folks would be hard pressed when arguing that conservative outlets, like The Daily Wire or TheBlaze, ‘promote … suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, sexual exploitation,’” she wrote: “Most conservative outlets, given their ideological stances, promote content that advances the prevention of these behaviors—particularly for children.”

Whether any of that is true about conservative media—and that’s arguable—what Heritage is saying should be a wake-up call for KOSA’s progressive supporters. The right is confident that those tasked with enforcing KOSA are ultimately on their side.

It’s not hard to see why legislation like KOSA enjoys bipartisan support, as is often the case in such efforts billed as “protecting children.” But Democrats cannot plead ignorance of the Republican Party’s notion of child protection, especially not while it looks like some are trying to turn it to their own ends.