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Biden is pushing an online safety bill that could harm LGBTQ+ youth

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In a speech on mental health care access earlier this week, President Joe Biden emphasized his support of the controversial Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), a bipartisan bill touted as a way to better protect what kids are viewing on the Internet.

“We’re taking steps to address the harm social media is doing to our young people. And it is doing harm,” Biden said. “We’ve got to hold these platforms accountable for the national experiment they’re conducting on our children for profit.”

“Later this week, senators will debate legislation to protect kids’ privacy online, which I’ve been calling for for two years. It matters. Pass it, pass it, pass it, pass it, pass it. I really mean it. Think about it. Do you ever get a chance to look at what your kids are looking at online?” he continued.

But the bill has long stirred anger among LGBTQ+ activists who believe Republicans will use it to prevent kids from seeing LGBTQ+ content. An earlier version of the bill used vague language directing social media companies to monitor and mitigate “harms” their platforms could cause to youth. Activists argued that Republican leaders could misconstrue that language to define harm as anything related to LGBTQ+ identities.

The bill has been reintroduced with amendments meant to account for those concerns — naming, for example, specific harms the companies should mitigate against (like suicidal behaviors, eating disorders, substance use, sexual exploitation, and ads for tobacco and alcohol) and what does not count as harmful. But some are still not convinced the bill goes far enough to keep LGBTQ+ youth safe.

In a recent op-ed in Teen Vogue, digital rights organizer Sarah Philips wrote that the bill still “authorizes state attorneys general to be the ultimate arbiters of what is good or bad for kids. If a state attorney general asserts that information about gender-affirming care or abortion care could cause a child depression or anxiety, they could sue an app or website for not removing that content.”

Philips discussed a widely cited report from the surgeon general about the dangers of social media for kids, and pointed out that the report also shows that for LGBTQ+ youth, their mental health improves when they can access social media and find community online.

Evan Greer, director of digital rights group Fight for the Future, has also been speaking out against the bill, writing on Twitter that “we can and must hold Big Tech accountable without throwing LGBTQ folks and other marginalized people under the bus.”

Greer told CNBC in May that the office of Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-NY), who introduced the bill, did not answer any of the group’s requests for a meeting before reintroducing the bill, despite meeting with other groups.

“It seems they intentionally excluded groups that have specific issue-area expertise in content moderation, algorithmic recommendation, etc,” Greer said, adding, “I’ve read through it and can say unequivocally that the changes that have been made DO NOT address the concerns that we raised in our letter. The bill still contains a duty of care that covers content recommendation, and it still allows state Attorneys General to effectively dictate what content platforms can recommend to minors.”

The ACLU also voiced its continued opposition to the bill, saying it would “ironically expose the very children it seeks to protect to increased harm and increased surveillance.”

Sen. Blumenthal reportedly addressed some of these concerns in a press conference, stating, “I think we’ve met that kind of suggestion very directly and effectively. Obviously, our door remains open. We’re willing to hear and talk to other kinds of suggestions that are made. And we have talked to many of the groups that had great criticism and a number have actually dropped their opposition, as I think you’ll hear in response to today’s session.”

“So I think our bill is clarified and improved in a way that meets some of the criticism,” Blumenthal continued. “We’re not going to solve all of the problems of the world with a single bill. But we are making a measurable, very significant start.”

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