Passing the Kids Online Safety Act just got more complicated

Just a couple of weeks after the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) surged with enough support to position it to clear the Senate, the path to new child protections on the internet suddenly looks more complex. Seeing the momentum, other lawmakers and outside groups sense it might be time to promote their own favored solutions, which could snarl KOSA’s Senate passage.

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), for example, sees this as an opportune moment for his own Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, which would only allow teens under 18 to use social media with their parents’ consent. “I imagine there’s only going to be one moment for all of the tech bills,” Schatz told The Washington Post in a story published Thursday. “I imagine that all of these efforts are going to be merged in the floor process.”

But that bill’s path may be less clear than KOSA’s. The Post reported that Republican leaders who previously backed the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act are pulling support, citing two unnamed sources. A new draft version viewed by the Post removed age verification requirements and parental sign-off for minors to use social media but left in place limits on algorithmic recommendations.

Representatives for Schatz and the two original Republican co-sponsors, Sens. Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Katie Britt (R-AL), did not immediately respond to The Verge’s requests for comment.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a lead sponsor of KOSA alongside Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), cautioned against complicating efforts to advance the bill.

“We should move forward with the proposals that have the broadest support, but at the same time, have open minds about what may add value,” Blumenthal told the Post. “This process is the art of addition not subtraction often … but we should make sure that we’re not undermining the base of support.”

“With more than 60 bipartisan cosponsors and broad stakeholder support, the Kids Online Safety Act is ready for a vote,” Blackburn and Blumenthal added in a joint statement to The Verge. “Parents and young people are urging swift passage of our legislation to hold Big Tech accountable, and the Senate should not delay for proposals that lack the same consensus.” 

We should move forward with the proposals that have the broadest support, but at the same time, have open minds about what may add value.”

At the same time, tech industry groups are trying to steer members of Congress toward different legislative solutions, as many remain opposed to KOSA.

NetChoice, Chamber of Progress, the Software & Information Industry Association, and Internet Works were among the groups that sent a letter to congressional leaders on Tuesday, urging them to pass the Invest in Child Safety Act. The bill, led by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Reps. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), is primarily aimed at directing more funding to law enforcement to investigate child predators, rather than focusing on tech companies. The letter was also signed by the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Technology as well as the Organization for Transformative Works, which operates popular noncommercial fanfiction site AO3.

The groups acknowledge lawmakers’ commitment to passing legislation to protect kids on the internet, and they’re offering an alternative mechanism to KOSA to do so — though they don’t directly present it that way.

“We know that children’s safety online will continue to be a top priority for Congress, and we want to ensure that the conversation includes finding ways to support prosecutors and law enforcement authorities responsible for investigating and prosecuting these horrific crimes,” the groups wrote in the letter.

Blumenthal and Blackburn have already made significant changes to KOSA to get more than 60 senators on board, including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY). One key change was to remove the ability of state attorneys general to enforce the duty of care placed on the social media sites to protect young users from certain harms. LGBTQ+ groups feared Republican state AGs would use the bill to limit access for young people in their community at a time when many Republican politicians have homed in on restricting healthcare and other resources for young trans people as a key culture war battle.

The changes led several leading LGBTQ+ groups to withdraw their opposition of the legislation, clearing a major hurdle for its passage. Still, groups including Fight for the Future, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the American Civil Liberties Union say the updates fail to eliminate their concerns of censorship and the ability of children to access important resources online.

Still, Schumer’s support of the bill gives it a major leg up over other proposals since he can set the agenda on the Senate floor. Earlier this month, when Blumenthal and Blackburn announced they’d passed the 60 co-sponsor threshold, Schumer said in a statement, “I look forward to working on a bipartisan basis with Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn to advance this bill in the Senate.”

Update 4:51 p.m. ET: Added statement from Sens. Blackburn and Blumenthal.

Read More

Lauren Feiner