News (USA)

Parents of trans kids urge Senate to oppose online safety bill that could harm LGBTQ+ youth

A computer keyboard with keys depicting social media platform logos.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons/todaytesting

More than 100 parents of transgender and gender-expansive kids have signed an open letter opposing a federal bill aimed at protecting kids from harmful content online. LGBTQ+ advocates have criticized the bill, arguing that Republicans will use it to prevent kids from seeing LGBTQ+ content.

In the open letter, the parents describe the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) as “dangerous and misguided,” and say that it will make trans and gender-nonconforming young people less safe.

“We love our kids more than anything in the world. Just like any other parent, we would do anything to keep them safe. We hold deep sympathy for parents whose kids have been harmed by Big Tech social media companies and their abusive business practices. Our kids have also been harmed by these companies’ greed: their addictive design, their intrusive surveillance, their failure to address online hate, bullying, and abuse,” the letter reads.

“But legislation like KOSA would make our kids less safe, not more safe,” the letter continues. “It would grant extraordinary new power to right wing state attorneys general to dictate what content younger users can see on social media, cutting our kids off from lifesaving online resources and community. These are the same attorneys general that are actively working to ban gender affirming health care that saves kids’ lives, criminalize drag performances, and label families that accept our children as ‘groomers’ and ‘child abusers.’” 

It also argues that KOSA would incentivize tech platforms to engage in even more intrusive data collection than they already do. With state legislatures across the country implementing laws that criminalize gender-affirming care for minors and generally make existence in the public sphere untenable for trans people, the letter argues that this would put trans kids and their families at risk.

The letter cites a recent report from the U.S. Surgeon General that showed that access to social media and online communities can be a “lifeline” for LGBTQ+ kids.

“We need to hold these companies accountable and regulate them, not cut our kids off from resources that can help them thrive,” it declares.

While there is strong bipartisan support for KOSA, including from President Biden, critics including the American Civil Liberties Union say that it will actually increase harm and surveillance on the very young people it purports to protect. An early version of the bill used vague language directing social media companies to monitor and mitigate “harms” their platforms could cause to youth. Opponents argued that Republican leaders could misconstrue that language to define harm as anything related to LGBTQ+ identities.

The bill was reintroduced in May with amendments meant to account for those concerns, naming specific harms the companies should mitigate as well as what should not be considered harmful. But some are still not convinced the bill goes far enough to keep LGBTQ+ youth safe.

“The changes that have been made to KOSA do not fix the deadly flaw with the bill, which is that it gives the government the power to dictate what speech younger users can see online, and would subject everyone to increased surveillance in order to access information and speak out online,” said Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future and a parent who helped organized the open letter. “There are alternative ways to accomplish the well intentioned goals behind KOSA without throwing trans kids and marginalized communities under the bus.”

Greer urged Congress to pass “a strong data privacy law” banning tech companies from harvesting users’ data for use in their algorithms. He also recommended that Congress and the FTC address “manipulative business practices like autoplay, infinite scroll, and intrusive notifications.” 

“They can do all of that without giving state attorneys general the power to censor speech that they don’t like,” Greer added.

According to Fight for the Future, a nonprofit that advocates for rights around digital privacy and censorship, nearly 300,000 people have already emailed and called their legislators opposing KOSA using the group’s online tool, BadInternetBills.com. Rep Maxwell Frost (D-FL) has come out against the bill, while Senators Ed Markey (D-MA) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA) have also expressed their concerns.

Last week, Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn (R) seemed to confirm KOSA opponents’ fears. Speaking to conservative Christian organization Family Policy Alliance, Blackburn said that one of her top priorities is to protect children from what she characterized as “the transgender in this culture.”

“I would add, too, that watching what’s happening on social media,” she said, bringing up KOSA. “This is where children are being indoctrinated. They’re hearing things at school and then they’re getting onto YouTube to watch a video and all of a sudden this comes to them…They click on something and the next thing you know they’re being inundated with it.”

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