U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal's Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) would force Big Tech to monitor minors (and most everyone else) online, pushing the internet toward universal age verification.
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut combines the worst characteristics of Cotton Mather, Girolamo Savonarola and the Rev. Jerry Falwell — Senior, not Junior.
The 76-year-old Democrat’s persistent, self-righteous efforts to censor the internet, using “the kids” as his rallying cry, is a creepy echo of the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s and the Salem Witch Trials of the 1600s. You can almost picture Blumenthal’s desiccated, skeletal frame outfitted à la Torquemada as he tortures sinners on the rack before burning them at the stake.
He’s also a notorious dissembler. In 2010, when he first ran for Senate, Blumenthal claimed — before a crowd of veterans, no less — that he had “served in Vietnam.” Actually, “DaNang Dick,” as some detractors refer to him, received five deferments during the war, finally landing in the Marine Reserves, which was never in jeopardy of being called up back then.
Using children’s safety as a means to achieve a broader censorship regime is a well-established strategy for the Senator, one he employed successfully with the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, which established a sex trafficking exception to Section 230 — supposedly as a way to go after the former classified listings site, Backpage.com.
But the joke was on us: the feds instead used an existing law, the U.S. Travel Act, to seize Backpage in violation of the First Amendment, and falsely charge its ex-owners with crimes related to the facilitation of prostitution.
FOSTA/SESTA also effectively banned all adult advertising in the U.S., and anything that remotely resembles it. Since being signed by President Trump in 2018, the law has resulted in just one charge, and that as part of a larger indictment.
Adult ads ended up migrating to sites overseas that do not cooperate with law enforcement — unlike Backpage, which worked closely with authorities and answered subpoenas within 24 hours or less. Out of fear of the new law, a host of U.S. sites self-censored, closing down legal, adult online conversations involving sexual topics.
Trafficked women and children? They’re more vulnerable than ever. Blumenthal’s aim was never to help them. His goal was the power and acclaim that comes from a self-aggrandizing moral crusade. Sadly, the residents of Connecticut seem unconcerned with his shenanigans. In November they overwhelmingly re-elected Blumenthal to a third term as their Senator.
Now, Blumenthal is focused on passing his latest piece of authoritarian legislation: the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a broadly-worded bill that experts say will force Big Tech to spy on children (and adults), making websites responsible for protecting kids from everything from suicidal thoughts and bullying to eating disorders and low self-esteem.
Sound Orwellian? That’s not the half of it. From my reading of the bill — which Blumenthal hopes to attach to some bigass, guaranteed-to-pass spending bill in the current lame-duck session of Congress — it’s evident that KOSA’s long-term goal is forcing age-verification onto every interactive site in existence, creating a highly-policed, two-tiered internet that may require us all to present government-issued IDs to use Google and access sites like Reddit, Facebook or Twitter.
Indeed, KOSA is so broad that you would, hypothetically, need your ID verified to look at Amazon or read The New York Times. The bill threatens to establish a veritable online panopticon to rival Communist China, ordering private entities to track us and retain that data for government use.
Techdirt editor Mike Masnick has written several articles attacking the bill’s intentionally “fuzzy language,” arguing that it will to lead to websites blocking information that falls under the legislation’s broad purview.
KOSA would require websites to closely monitor minors, defined in the bill as age 16 and below. But Masnick observes that KOSA “tries to deal with ‘protecting children’ by pushing websites to more actively surveil everyone.”
The bill defines a “covered platform” as a “commercial software application or electronic service that connects to the internet and that is used, or is reasonably likely to be used, by a minor.” Covered platforms would have “a duty to act in the best interests” of minors using their products, by preventing and mitigating “the heightened risks of physical, emotional, developmental, or material harms to minors posed by materials on, or engagement with, the platform.”
This vague psychobabble includes:
(1) promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other matters that pose a risk to physical and mental health of a minor;
(2) patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction-like behaviors;
(3) physical harm, online bullying, and harassment of a minor;
(4) sexual exploitation, including enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse of minors and trafficking of online child sexual abuse material;
(5) promotion and marketing of products or services that are unlawful for minors, such as illegal drugs, tobacco, gambling, or alcohol; and
(6) predatory, unfair, or deceptive marketing practices.
Jeez, what about tooth decay and wearing clean underwear?
I’ve heard of in loco parentis, but this is ridiculous. KOSA also requires sites to provide parents with surveillance apps so they can keep tabs on their kids, 24-7. It doesn’t require a lot of imagination to see how this can go wrong, particularly if the parent is abusive or a homophobe.
No wonder almost 100 civil and electronic rights groups, including the ACLU, the American Library Association, GLAAD and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, recently signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and others, warning of the bill’s potential Pandora’s box of harms, especially its effective order that websites “employ broad content filtering to limit minors’ access to certain online content.”
The letter broaches what I consider the proverbial pachyderm in the room: How will “covered platforms” know that the people using their services are 16 or younger?
The letter notes, “Service providers will . . . face strong incentives to employ age verification techniques to distinguish adult from minor users, in order to apply these strict limits only to young people’s accounts.”
So everything online could end up being age-gated and supervised, with the result regulated by government entities like the Federal Trade Commission, the Secretary of Commerce, state attorneys general and something called the “Kids Online Safety Council,” which will advise on the implementation of the law.
Keep in mind, parents already can install filters on their child’s devices. Requiring websites to do it is unnecessary and reminds me of the battle over the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which attempted to keep sexually explicit material online away from minors, though a year later, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of the law as unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The majority opinion, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, includes this relevant passage: “In order to deny minors access to potentially harmful speech, the CDA effectively suppresses a large amount of speech that adults have a constitutional right to receive and to address to one another.”
KOSA dictates that Big Tech act as an arm of the federal government — or else. Even conservatives are wary of this idea. A recent op-ed in the National Review written by two researchers for the Heritage Foundation opposed deputizing platforms as content cops for the government, albeit for reasons different from those of your average progressive.
As of this writing, the bill lists just 11 co-sponsors, including Blumenthal, which doesn’t signal a tsunami of enthusiasm for it. (By contrast, what became FOSTA/SESTA had 70 co-sponsors in the Senate.)
In fact, Blumenthal’s attempt to piggyback KOSA on a budget or defense bill, so the act is not debated and voted on separately, smacks of desperation. His other censorship bill, the EARN It ACT, seems to have floundered as well.
But to borrow an aphorism, no one sleeps well while Congress is in session — especially when a sleazy operator like Blumenthal is involved. Heightened vigilance is advised.
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