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November 1, 2023 ~ 8 min read

Censorship or Protection? Analyzing the Implications of Child Online Safety Legislation


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This is a copy of a paper I wrote for english.

In the last few years, we have seen a wave of “online safety bills” created by lawmakers that will ostensibly help protect children online. The US has the Protecting Kids on Social Media Act (PKSMA, S.1291) and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA, S.1409) while in the UK they have the Online Safety Bill (OSB). The main feature that all of these bills have in common is the censorship of online content for minors. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has raised concerns over KOSA, saying, “The bill requires all websites, apps, and online platforms to filter and block legal speech” (Mullin). These bills raise an important question–should the government regulate the online activities of children, or should that responsibility lie solely with parents?

The bills above all propose different methods of regulating online content, but they all contain a united mission to “protect children online.” KOSA has four regulatory pieces. One of them is the legal duty for platforms to prevent certain harms including “promotion of self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other matters that pose a risk to the physical and mental health of a minor” (“Text - S.1409”).  This would cover any platform that is “reasonably likely to be used” (“Text - S.1409”) by a minor, and would be supplemented with strict parental controls required by default. As writers from the EFF pointed out, as a result of the broad language the potential impact could be very wide, affecting teaching on subjects such as gun ownership, Christianity, racism, substance abuse, eating disorders, and depression to name a few (Kelley) (Mullin). As Sarah Philips, organizer of Fight for the Future, so aptly, put it, “We don’t live in a country where there is a consensus about what is harmful to children, so how could the government determine what’s appropriate for every kid” (qtd. in Molloy)?

KOSA would also compel platforms to provide data to researchers and implement an elaborate age-verification system. This age verification clause is a problem because children could be made federal criminals and/or be fined, or imprisoned for up to five years, for circumventing the system (Weissmann). A survey by Internet Matters of services with a minimum age of 13, revealed that of 1000 11-15-year-olds, 62% of 11-year-olds and 69% of 12-year-olds have a Facebook profile, 36% of 11-year-olds and 57% of 12-year-olds use Instagram, 22% of 11-year-olds and 41% of 12-year-olds own a Snapchat account. In addition, 50% of the children surveyed had a WhatsApp account, which has a minimum age of 16. 

PKSMA would go even further than KOSA by prohibiting kids under 13 from using social media at all and requiring any minor under 18 to have parental permission to create an account. To enforce the age limit, the government would create a digital ID system and companies would be required to use the system to verify users. While the system is still being developed, and we don’t have definite information on how it would work, we do know that the program would be implemented as a barrier to creating an account. As a result, it would restrict access to platforms and services from people who don’t have a form of government identification. According to a Brennan Center study of voting age adults, this could negatively affect 11% of Americans, potentially higher when minors, and undocumented immigrants are included. Considering that these platforms are worldwide, the problem of having to create a global digital ID system or more likely a location system is encountered. This would be difficult to implement as a location based system can easily be tricked, and a global digital ID is unlikely.

The OSB from the UK has the same digital ID and content censorship requirements as the other two bills but contains an even scarier proposal: government mandated surveillance of every message, post, or piece of content generated by users. This would effectively kill end-to-end encryption and generate massive safety risks for those that use online services to avoid persecution or censorship in their countries. The response given by the House of Lords against the furious pushback has been, according to the EFF, “to wave its hands and deny reality. … the U.K.’s Minister for Culture, Media and Sport simply re-hashes an imaginary world in which messages can be scanned while user privacy is maintained” (Mullin, “The UK Government”).

A potential obstacle to these bills, however, is that the restriction of content for minors is unlawful. In the USA, the First Amendment, a key piece of our civil liberties since 1791 as a part of the Bill of Rights, protects the right to free speech with these words: “Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech.” For the rest of the world, the ICCPR, developed by the United Nations to protect freedoms globally, states in Article 19: “Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice” (“International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”). Neither of these provide a qualifying age factor. As the Supreme Court stated in the case Planned Parenthood v. Danforth: “Constitutional rights do not mature and come into being magically only when one attains the state-defined age of majority. Minors, as well as adults, are protected by the Constitution and possess constitutional rights” (Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976)).

In Modern Socio-Technical Perspectives on Privacy, the authors say, “young people place great social value on their online privacy and want policies that are fair and negotiable.” and in addition, “The use of online surveillance … can undermine trust and hinder relationship building” (Wisniewski et al.). This is specifically speaking of the relationship between parent and child, but more broadly can be extrapolated to the government. We don’t want the next generation of our youth to grow up feeling like the government doesn’t trust them or their parents to regulate their information intake. Youth won’t be able to learn and grow from interacting with others online if the government walls it off. 

Many of the systems that lawmakers are trying to put in place might not be effective. “According to Yardi and Bruckman, teens—who often have greater knowledge and skills … in applying technology workarounds—may rebel against … rules and engage in riskier behaviors to avoid technology constraints” (Wisniewski et al.). This could mean that the main effect of those laws would be to censor the content of everyone using social platforms, while completely failing to keep minors off social media.

In summary, these bills all have the same stated goal: to protect minors online, a laudable goal. The way lawmakers are trying to do this, however, creates many harmful implications both for minors and for adults. We don’t need the government to make decisions on what content is or isn’t acceptable or what age they should be allowed to use services. Instead, I would propose that the government help provide tools and resources that parents are not obliged to use, but which they may use to help their children better understand and navigate the online world.


Works Cited

Brennan Center. Citizens Without Proof. https://www.brennancenter.org/our-work/research-reports/citizens-without-proof. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.

“International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” OHCHR, https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/international-covenant-civil-and-political-rights. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.

Internet Matters. “Should Social Media Use Age Verification?” Internet Matters, 13 June 2016, https://www.internetmatters.org/hub/expert-opinion/digital-doormen-dont-ask-for-id/.

Kelley, Jason. “The Kids Online Safety Act Is Still A Huge Danger to Our Rights Online.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2 May 2023, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2023/05/kids-online-safety-act-still-huge-danger-our-rights-online.

Molloy, Parker. Congress Is About to Pass a Very Bad Internet Bill. Here’s How You Can Stop It. 2 June 2022, https://www.readtpa.com/p/congress-is-about-to-pass-a-very.

Mullin, Joe. “Congress Amended KOSA, But It’s Still A Censorship Bill.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 10 Aug. 2023, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2023/08/congress-amended-kosa-its-still-censorship-bill.

---. “The UK Government Knows How Extreme The Online Safety Bill Is.” Electronic Frontier Foundation, 8 Sept. 2023, https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2023/09/uk-government-knows-how-extreme-online-safety-bill.

“Planned Parenthood v. Danforth, 428 U.S. 52 (1976).” Justia Law, https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/428/52/. Accessed 27 Sept. 2023.

“Text - S.1409 - 118th Congress (2023-2024): Kids Online Safety Act.” Congress.gov, Library of Congress, 27 July 2023, https://www.congress.gov/bill/118th-congress/senate-bill/1409/text.

Weissmann, Shoshana. “Regimes That Run Age Verification through the Government Would Allow Prosecutors to Make Children Federal Criminals If They Lie about Their Age.” R Street Institute, https://www.rstreet.org/commentary/regimes-that-run-age-verification-through-the-government-would-allow-prosecutors-to-make-children-federal-criminals-if-they-lie-about-their-age/. Accessed 14 Sept. 2023.

Wisniewski, Pamela J., et al. “Privacy in Adolescence.” Modern Socio-Technical Perspectives on Privacy, edited by Bart P. Knijnenburg et al., Springer International Publishing, 2022, pp. 315–36. Springer Link, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-82786-1_14.



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Kieran Klukas —🏠 Homeschooled 10th grader | 💻 Homelaber | 🐧 Linux Enthusiast | 🔒 Privacy Nerd | 🚁 FPV Pilot | 🌐 Internet Aficionado | 🌍 Open Source Enthusiast | 🎻 Violinist | 📚 Bookworm