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Cyberbullying and data privacy advocates split on federal bill to protect kids online

Ryan E. Poppe
Texas Public Radio
State Senator José Menéndez (D-San Antonio) advocating for state legislation in 2017 to protect kids from cyberbullying. He stands in front of a picture of David Molak, who died by suicide, whose mom now supports federal legislation to prevent online harassment.

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The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) is a bill in Congress that would place more responsibility on online service providers to protect youth under 18 from harmful online content and give parents more control over their children’s online activity.

Maurine Molak lost her son to suicide in 2016 after being cyberbullied. Since then, she founded David’s Legacy Foundation in San Antonio to push for state and federal legislation against cyberbullying and other online harms, and supports KOSA.

“What we’re asking for in this bill is just that these platforms have a duty of care, and that they act in the best interests of minors,” Molak said.

But opponents like Emma Llansó, the director of the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), said the legislation’s fundamental framework gave too much power to state attorneys general to dictate what youth in their states can view online.

“What KOSA may end up doing is giving state attorneys general — some of whom are already campaigning against trans youth and other young members and adult members of the LGBTQ community — a tool to go after online services if the state attorney general disagrees with the kind of information about gender-affirming care or access to reproductive health care or other kinds of information are being made available on that service,” Llansó said.

Ryan Poppe

KOSA is a bipartisan bill first introduced in the 2022-2023 legislative session with the backing of groups like the American Psychological Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was met with resistance from an array of data privacy, civil liberties, and LGBTQ+ organizations including CDT, the ACLU, and GLAAD.

The bill’s authors said they made revisions in the bill in response to the opposition, but Llansó said the fundamental flaws had not changed.

The bill lays out several different policies. It would mandate that certain covered online service providers, like social media platforms, have a “duty of care” to protect minors. That would require them to prevent and mitigate certain harms to youth online like sexual exploitation, cyberbullying, and mental illnesses.

It would also require these companies to offer safeguards for minors and their parents to limit the ability of others to communicate with minors, prevent other users from viewing minors’ personal data, and allow parents to restrict financial transactions.

“Parents also have a right to know what goes into our children’s social media feeds, and KOSA asks for transparency regarding [service providers’] complicated algorithms and the online dangers that our children are exposed to today, like content related to suicide and self-harm, cyberbullying, eating disorders, addictive substances, and sexualized content,” Molak said.

Courtesy Photo
Molak Family
Maurine Molak and her three sons, including David Molak (left).

The last major piece of KOSA gives state attorneys general the authority to sue service providers if they have “a reason to believe that an interest of the residents of that State has been or is threatened or adversely affected by the engagement of any person in a practice that violates this Act or a regulation promulgated under this Act.”

Llansó said this piece is what concerns her and other opponents the most.

“I think that is empowering state attorneys general in a way that they are already demonstrating would create enormous risks to a lot of vulnerable communities,” she said, particularly LGBTQ+ youth.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has launched investigations against parents of trans youth and an Austin hospital over discussions over gender transition-related care. Gender transition-related care is now illegal in the state.

Llansó feared that content moderation provisions would be ineffective and overly broad.

“Online service providers cannot, with a fine-toothed comb, separate out the bad content talking about suicide from the good or supportive or useful content talking with kids who have mental health issues and who are reaching out and seeking support,” Llansó said. “Online service providers will just sweep up all of the content related to mental health.”

The floor of the Texas House of Representatives.
Gabriel Cristover Perez
The floor of the Texas House of Representatives.

But Molak said criticisms like those from Llansó are overblown.

“When we were working on David’s Law, we know that we had some of those same opponents,” she said. “And we got David’s Law passed, and the sky is not falling in Texas.”

David’s Law passed in the Texas legislature in 2017. It criminalized cyberbullying that causes physical harm and mandated cyberbullying reporting in public school districts among other policies. Its opponents argued the bill was overly broad and could end up criminalizing constitutionally protected speech.

Llansó said a better answer to the problem of online harms to children would be federal privacy legislation to protect the personal privacy of all Americans online.

“There are some interesting ideas in the safeguards section of KOSA, talking about different tools that young people should have access to, abilities to affect the settings and use of their data on online services,” she said. “Those are the kinds of things that we’d actually like to see everybody have access to and every user have the option to employ to better protect their privacy … that’s why CDT supports passing federal privacy legislation.”

KOSA was approved in a Senate Commerce Committee markup on Thursday, the key formal step before it can move to a full Senate vote.

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