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The Transphobia Hidden Inside the Latest Online Safety Bills

What looks to some like a rare form of bipartisan agreement to rein in Big Tech is also a method of scrambling actual accountability—with a broad, dangerous “save the children” crusade.

Samuel Corum/Getty Images
Senator Marsha Blackburn speaks during 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.

It probably says enough about the current political moment that if you want to learn how people really feel about a proposed piece of legislation, you’ll end up watching a lot of monologues on your tiny phone screen delivered while greenscreened against screenshots of news stories. “Gen Z, come here,” began one video posted this summer by a TikTok creator with the username omarsbigsister. “Because this organization that claims to represent you is heading to DC.”

The creator made their video, which has since racked up more than 500,000 views, in July, just as it looked like the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, was going to move through Congress with bipartisan support. KOSA’s supporters did include groups claiming to represent Gen Z; like the others pushing the bill, they said their opposition was the tech companies who profited from endangering young people with their products. But if you were to go online, you could easily find young people who opposed the bill and were using those platforms to speak back. It was an effective strategy to engage an audience: All of you following my channel now? This bill will hurt all of us. For petitions to sign, graphics to share, and info on how to call your congressional representatives, link in bio. And their video ended up shared on the website of one of the groups opposing the bill, Fight for the Future.

Bills like KOSA are a subtle twist in how “child safety” legislation is promoted now. The fear animating these bills goes back to the early days of the web itself: that there was a unique kind of danger, usually sexual, lurking online, searching for children, away from parents’ watchful gaze. Those were the dial-up days. There is so much more internet now for those people to fear, seemingly designed to make them feel bad about themselves. KOSA, its supporters will tell you, is just asking tech companies to take responsibility for their products; to be held to a “duty of care.” But that’s exactly the problem for KOSA’s supporters: It appeals to the Big Tech titans they say are endangering children to instead protect them. And the narrative KOSA’s boosters have adopted to push the bill makes it all too easy to sidestep both the unmet needs of young people and the considerable power of those companies.

To most advocates of these internet bills, their opponent is Big Tech, companies who stand to profit from business as usual and operate with impunity. “Big Tech companies and their army of lobbyists are already coming out in force against this proposal out of fear that it could impact their bottom line,” the director of the Council for Responsible Social Media argued in a recent op-ed at The Hill in support of KOSA. “With their deep pockets and K Street offices, we’ve allowed these companies to amass exorbitant profits off of our children with little to no oversight.” In such arguments, young people who disagree with online safety bills’ promoters do not figure in, except maybe as presumed beneficiaries.

Sometimes, supporters will add, it’s not tech companies themselves but groups who are paid to push their interests. “It removes the Big Tech companies one degree at least,” the head of the Tech Transparency Project, or TTP, told The Washington Post in May, so that tech companies could “absolve themselves from looking like they’re pushing this issue.” Who wants to seem like they are against child safety? TTP has also stated that one of Big Tech’s tactics is “hiding its agenda behind more sympathetic figures,” in a report on efforts to stall KOSA-like legislation at the state and federal level; these figures, it said, then “push the industry’s agenda while making it seem as though Big Tech’s positions—aimed at protecting the industry’s bottom line—have grassroots support.”

But when groups who claim to represent the interests of young people in the face of tech behemoths don’t also recognize the bills they are lobbying for have genuine opponents outside Big Tech, it gives the appearance that anyone arguing against these bills is actually working in favor of tech companies. This is only more complicated by the fact that “holding Big Tech accountable” is now, for better and for worse, a demand shared by much of the political spectrum. Even the purported small-government, pro-corporation Republicans frame their support for such bills as striking a blow against the tech giants. This narrative is part of the GOP’s larger political strategy to reimagine these platforms as anti-MAGA, pro-“woke” censors eager to deplatform and shadowban conservatives.

It’s worth pausing right here. Deplatforming and shadowbanning are not inventions of aggrieved right-wing influencers. Roll the clock back just a few years, and you would be most likely to find political activism against deplatforming and shadowbanning coming from sex workers, from queer and trans communities, from sex educators—internet users that conservatives typically would not mind being marginalized. This isn’t to say that Pizzagate promoter Jack Posobiec stands with progressives against online censorship now; far from it. Rather, it’s a sign that those on the right have seized on tech platforms’ power to restrain speech to position themselves as the champions of free speech.

This kind of role reversal is at the heart of Naomi Klein’s new book, Doppelganger, in which she traces the political transformation of the “other Naomi” she is often confused with online, the conspiracy theory–peddling Naomi Wolf. Klein observes that though Wolf’s pandemic-inspired fever dreams about tech—of a population literally held in “slavery forever” by vaccine passport apps—have no truth to them, to plenty of people, they felt true. “We are indeed living through a revolution in surveillance tech, and state and corporate actors have indeed seized outrageous powers to monitor us, often in collaboration and coordination with one another,” Klein writes. The “conspiracy” Wolf’s world sees behind technology, Klein goes on to argue, is just capitalism—and in her view, the left has not fought Big Tech power nearly hard enough. When the left does not raise the alarm, Klein argues, Big Tech becomes “the terrain of the Bannonite political right, which points to a dangerous ceding of ideological territory.”

This is why it feels so perverse to see legislators and advocates who consider themselves liberal out there pushing these internet bills, positioning their opposition as “Big Tech.” They risk lumping in with tech industry groups the arguments their opponents are actually making, which are also against unchecked corporate tech power and in favor of empowering internet users over internet companies. And they are doing so as they make common cause with those on the right who see these bills as part of their own project of “protecting children.”

As KOSA’s lead sponsor, Senator Marsha Blackburn, has admitted quite openly, “protecting children” in this sense means preventing young people from going online and learning that trans people exist. “This is where children are being indoctrinated … and all of a sudden this comes to them,” Blackburn said in a recently published Family Policy Alliance video.

After publication, Senator Blackburn’s office contacted The New Republic and asked us to include in our story a September 3 post on X from Jamie Susskind, legislative director for Senator Blackburn. The post was itself a response to a post promoting a Los Angeles Blade story about KOSA, including with the link the text, “A bill with bipartisan backing is quietly making its way through Congress, and it could pose a significant threat to LGBTQ+ content online.” The legislative director’s post on X reads: “This is false. These are two separate issues being taken out of context. KOSA will not — nor was it designed to — target or censor any individual or community.” The text the legislative director is responding to is not incorrect: KOSA does have bipartisan support, and it could pose a threat to LGBTQ-related content online, if tech platforms believe they must remove such content in order to comply with KOSA, as would be consistent with their enforcement of similar bills in the recent past—such as SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that Senator Blackburn supported.

Concerns over the same discovery mechanisms that disinformation researchers have used to describe how people were drawn into QAnon are here repurposed to promote KOSA perfectly. When these bills are supported by anti-trans politicians—and they do end up harming trans kids—that is not an “unintended consequence.” What looks to some, I am sure, like a rare form of bipartisan agreement to rein in Big Tech is also a method of scrambling actual accountability for tech platforms with a broad, dangerous “save the children” crusade.

It should not be so difficult, in 2023, to insist that there is a way to confront Big Tech that is bigger than this, less compromising than this. It can’t all be left to Gen Z, either, though they are breaking through. In a statement from Florida Democratic Representative Maxwell Frost, posted two weeks after omarsbigsister’s TikTok, he said bills like KOSA “jeopardize kids’ privacy through increased data collection and promote inappropriate parental surveillance which can keep children experiencing domestic abuse from seeking help.” Representative Frost noted that his state’s governor, Ron DeSantis, had already expressed his intention to use bills like KOSA to censor LGBTQ content. “Big Tech is hurting our kids,” the parents of more than 100 trans and gender-expansive kids said in an open letter published this July. “KOSA would hurt them even more.” KOSA’s supporters are not making an enemy of Big Tech—they are denying the scope of Big Tech’s opposition.

This article has been updated.