By Olivia Wood / Left Voice
So far in 2023, nearly 600 anti-trans bills have been proposed in the United States, mostly in state legislatures. Some (83) passed, even more (125) failed, and the rest are sitting in legislative limbo. At the national level, attempts to ban gender-affirming care have failed to gain traction, but there is another bill making its way through the Senate with serious implications not only for trans youth, but for all young people and potentially adults as well: the so-called Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA).
KOSA is framed with a relatively uncontroversial premise: there is stuff on the internet that can be harmful to those who encounter it. But as the Electronic Frontier Foundation has outlined, it is ultimately a surveillance bill that would restrict everyone’s ability to use the internet freely. The bill’s requirements are vague enough that platforms might censor content gratuitously just to be on the safe side, and some implementation options, such as requiring age-verification measures in order to access a site, would require everyone to share personal details with websites in order to use them — a measure with serious privacy risks.
One of the bill’s provisions concerns platforms’ duty of care regarding minors’ exposure to certain kinds of content and platform features. It’s this section that many advocates are most concerned about in terms of the potential for broad censorship. The language of the bill states that “a covered platform shall act in the best interests of a user that the platform knows or reasonably should know is a minor by taking reasonable measures in its design and operation of products and services to prevent and mitigate the following.” It then lists several items, including “consistent with evidence-informed medical information, the following mental health disorders: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal behaviors” and “sexual exploitation and abuse.”
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These goals might seem unobjectionable at face value. But apart from the very open question of extent to which social media platforms are actually facilitating these things, and whether a bill like this one would actually help, we need to remember that many states are now trying to define being trans in the general proximity of a child as a sex crime and helping a trans child access healthcare as child abuse. The Heritage Foundation, which is also responsible for a document defining the existence of trans people in media as inherently pornographic, has explicitly stated that it supports using KOSA and other bills like it to prohibit access to “transgender content,” and Tennessee senator Marsha Blackburn, the primary sponsor of the bill, said that “protecting children from the transgender in our culture” is the most important issue right now and that “watching what’s happening on social media” is deeply related. Blackburn has also said learning about racism leads to depression and “trauma” for white children. Under this framework, states like Tennessee could use KOSA to censor factual information about the role of racism and white supremacy in U.S. history under the guise of “protecting children.”
Another important aspect of the bill is the fact that enforcement is left up to each state’s attorney general. If the bill becomes law, we can expect its effects to look very different from state to state. An explicit anti-trans or anti-critical-race-theory (CRT) censorship bill is unlikely to pass at the national level, but a “kids online safety bill” that can function as an anti-trans or anti-CRT bill at the whims of leaders at the state level — where Republicans tend to do better in elections due to local gerrymandering — has a stronger chance. And it’s working: the bill has bipartisan support and nearly half of the cosponsors are Democrats.
This is not the first attempt to restrict children’s use of social media. In Arkansas, Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders signed a bill in April that took effect this month that requires parental permission in order for children to make new social media accounts and requires that platforms make use of age verification services. In the House of Representatives, Utah Republican Chris Stewart introduced a bill earlier this year that would ban children under 16 from using social media, although the bill has gone nowhere. Another bill in Florida — which passed — restricts children from using social media in schools. While this one is less restrictive than the others, it does create new difficulties for children attempting to access information on their own, especially if they don’t have internet access outside of school or if their internet usage is surveilled by their parents.
While access to information and community is a critical form of social and emotional support for LGBTQ+ youth and is especially important if they have an unsupportive home environment, these attacks go beyond just that. These laws are a reaction to the fact that through widespread internet access, young people are able to acquire information outside the traditional conduits such as parents, schools, and religion. While discussion around the Florida bill did include concerns about students being distracted on their phones during class, one legislator also spoke of kids “losing their innocence” through content they see on their phones, an anti-queer dog whistle given the political climate of Florida and the popularity of “groomer” rhetoric and the rhetorical sexualization of queer identity by the right. States have already been cracking down on children’s access to information through “Don’t Say Gay” bills and bans on CRT (read: learning about racism), they’re attempting to influence what they learn at home through fear-mongering propaganda, and now they’re trying to come for information found on social media.
Misinformation on the internet is a real and widespread problem, but these bills aren’t intended to tackle actual misinformation: their purpose is to limit the spread of progressive politics that pose a threat to the state. We can see this in recent statements by Elon Musk, too: while he claims to be a “free speech absolutist,” more recent comments reveal that he was motivated to purchase the company formerly known as Twitter due to concerns about the “woke mind virus” (i.e., transness and progressivism) that had infected his daughter (who is trans, allegedly identifies as a communist, and has disavowed any relationship or association with him).
If the KOSA bill passes, it will even further erode internet privacy and increase surveillance for all internet users. But it’s also a targeted attack against LGBTQ+ people, people of color, and all children who want to learn, disguised as a measure “for their own good.” The Republicans are using it as a measure to not-so-subtly-at-all Trojan horse some of their reactionary policies into federal law, for enforcement at the state level, and the Democrats are going along with it. Nor can they plead ignorance, as many journalists and advocacy organizations have been speaking up about their concerns since 2022’s version of the bill was introduced to Congress. Instead, these Democratic cosponsors are knowingly supporting a bill that will be used to harm trans people, especially trans youth. This is a bipartisan move that will limit children’s freedom to learn about the world, reduce privacy and increase censorship for everyone, and increase state power. Information should be circulated freely, and while children’s safety online is a real problem, this bill is not the way to keep them safe.
Olivia is a writer and editor at Left Voice and lecturer in English at the City University of New York (CUNY).