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Business is business: Snap, Microsoft, and X endorse the anti-LGBTQ+, pro-censorship KOSA bill

What's important is *looking like* they're trying to protect children -- even though KOSA would actually harm kids

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"Experts have repeatedly explained why, as written, dangerous and misguided bills like KOSA, STOP CSAM, and the EARN IT Act would make kids less safe, not more safe. Hundreds of thousands of young people and others have spoken up, calling for legislation that protects privacy rather than leads to censorship. But these bills’ sponsors have so far rejected common-sense fixes that would ensure these bills crack down on Big Tech’s harmful business practices rather than trampling free expression, privacy, and human rights."

– Fight for the Future director Evan Greer, quoted in If Senators want to protect kids, they need to listen to human rights experts and fix their legislation. Otherwise they’re helping Big Tech.
“Protecting minor children from the transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence,” is one of the most important issues conservatives can take a stand on now, [Sen. Marsha] Blackburn said, in an interview with the Family Policy Alliance, a group pushing anti-LGBTQ rights laws. “And I would add to that, watching what’s happening on social media. I’ve got the Kids Online Safety Act.”

– Melissa Gira Grant, The GOP Has a Plan for “Online Safety.” It Involves Censoring LGBTQ Content, The New Republic
“The owner of Snapchat is backing a bill meant to bolster online protections for children on social media, the first company to publicly split from its trade shop days before the company’s CEO prepares to testify on Capitol Hill.”

– Rebecca Kern, First tech platform breaks ranks to support kids online safety bill, Politico
"The Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) provides a reasonable, impactful approach.... Microsoft supports this legislation, encourages its passage, and applauds Senators Blumenthal and Blackburn for their leadership."

Microsoft President Brad Smith on Linked In
"We support KOSA... [We] will continue to make sure that it accelerates."

– X CEO Linda Yaccarino, quoted in Matt Binder's Elon Musk’s X comes out in favor of pro-censorship law, Mashable
Take action: Fight for the Future's makes it easy to contact Congress and ask them to oppose KOSA

Spirited opposition from human rights and LGBTQ groups – as well as digital rights organiations like EFF and Center for Democracy and Technology – kept Congress from passing KOSA in 2023, but the bill's bipartisan sponsors and supporters made it clear that they weren't giving up. Neither are the sponsors of STOP CSAM, EARN IT, or the other bad internet bills. One way to look at yesterday's Senate hearing on Big Tech and the Online Child Exploitation Crisis – and "surprise" announcements of support from several Big Tech companies – was the official launch of their 2024 campaign.

The problems KOSA and the other bills are addressing are real. As danah boyd says in KOSA wasn't designed to help kids

"Are young people in a crisis? ABSOLUTELY. Suicide ideation and completion rates are increasing. Depression and anxiety are escalating. Youth are crying out for help in countless ways, including turning to the internet in the hopes that they’ll find support."

And Congress is quite right to point a finger at Big Tech for their role. Meta buried internal research higlighting the harms Instagram causes to teen girls, and their CEO Mark F***king Zuckerberg Is Not Your Friend. X laid off its entire Trust & Safety staff, and their new owner personally intervened to restore the account of somebody spreading child sexual abuse material (CSAM). So the idea of legislation that would help kids in a crisis while reining in Big Tech is attractive.

Alas, these bills would do neither.  As boyd says:

"[T]he stark reality is that bills like this will do more harm to vulnerable youth at the very moment when so many young people need help. They need investment, attention, support. What will it take for people to realize that focusing on tech isn’t the path forward to helping youth? Sadly, I know the answer. More dead kids."

Still, for many politicians in both parties, what's important here is looking like they're trying to protect children and rein in Big Tech – whether or not they actually protect children and reining in Big Tech. KOSA gives them something the can use on the campaign trail. And Big Tech spends a lot of money on lobbying, so doing something that would actually help rein them in is politically challenging. Meanwhile, tech companies want to look like they're so concerned about protecting children that they're willing to endorse tough legislation. Of course they know that these bills won't actually help, but again, what's important here?

As I'll discuss at the end of this article, if Congress decides they actually want to protect children (and decides that's politically better than looking like they don't want to protect chlidren), there are things they could do: improve KOSA, pass the bipartisan Invest in Child Safety Act. Before we get there though, let's look in more detail at the politics of the situation – and the interesting situation pro-LGBTQ+ big tech companies find themselves in.

The anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of KOSA are far from the only problem with the bill

There's been a lot of focus on the anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of KOSA, and for good reason. To be clear, this is far from the only problem with the bill.  For one thing, it won't actually make kids safer, which is supposedly its whole reason for existing! And As Julia Serano says in KOSA: A Nationwide Anti-Trans/LGBTQ+ Bill in All but Name,

"[T]he language regarding what constitutes “harm” is written in an extremely broad way, applying to anything that might impact “anxiety, depression, eating disorders,1 substance use disorders, and suicidal behaviors” in minors."

In These Bills Will Make Children Less Safe, Not More Safe, Evan Greer discusses how this would suppress all discussion of eating disorders among young people:

"[A]t scale, a platform like YouTube or Instagram is not going to be able to make a meaningful determination between, for example, a video that’s harmful in promoting eating disorders, or a video where a young person is just speaking about their experience with an eating disorder, and how they sought out help and support, and how other young people can do it too."

Not only that, the bill gives state Attorneys General enforcement authority if they have "reason to believe that an interest of the residents of that State has been or is threatened or adversely affected" by its content.  As Charlie Jane Anders says in The Internet Is About to Get a Lot Worse,

"In other words, the attorney general of Texas, Florida, Alabama or Tennessee has basically free reign to sue, or threaten a lawsuit, any time they can claim something on the internet is bad for kids. And there's no evidence required — the AGs simply need to have "reason to believe" something is harmful."

As Susan Rinkunas discusses in 3 Huge Tech Companies Endorse Bill That Could Wipe Abortion Info From the Internet,  AGs in states that have criminalized abortion can treat any discussion of reproductive health as "harmful."  AGs in states like Texas and Florida that are banning discussions of CRT and books about race because they're supposedly "harmful" can apply the same criteria to social network discussions.  

So like I said, the anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of KOSA are far from the only problem with the bill.

The anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of KOSA are key to the politics of the situation

Still, the anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of KOSA are key to the politics.

  • From Republican perspectives (and for X's owner), it's a big win – enough to get people who supposedly don't like government interference with business, and like to position themselves as defending free speech, on board.  
  • As long as enough Democrats and big tech companies who claim to support LGBTQ+ rights are willing to go along with it, KOSA's got a much better chance of passing.

On the other hand, if pro-LGBTQ+ Democrats and legislators of both parties who really do want to help kids stick to their guns, then Congress is a lot more likely to do something that actually helps kids.

Business is business

KOSA support from Snap and Microsoft– and Zuckerberg's comment in the hearing says he supported some of the harmful aspects of KOSA like requiring age verification – is a tipoff that despite its framing, KOSA wouldn't do much at all to rein in Big Tech.  Of course X's owner is rabidly anti-trans so it's not surprising he'd support an anti-LGBTQ+ bill, but Snap always makes a big deal of supporitng Pride month (themed bitmoji clothing!) and Microsoft's got a very pro-LGBTQ+ reputation. Microsoft's done a lot to earn that reputation over the years – it was the first Fortune 500 company to provide same-sex domestic partnership benefits, one of the first companies to include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy, and in 2022 deservedly got credit for being one of 60 companies urging Texas to abandon its anti-trans efforts.

But, business is business. As Mike Masnick says about Smith's announcement in Microsoft Joins In On The ‘Screw Over LGBTQ Kids’ Party By Supporting KOSA:

"He knows it’s an easy way to cozy up with Congress and pretend to support their agenda, while the downside risk to Microsoft is minimal. KOSA is going to cause a pain for more consumer-facing social media sites like Instagram and YouTube, but Microsoft-owned sites like LinkedIn and GitHub are most likely to be spared. So, as a totally cynical approach, this saddles some of Microsoft’s largest competitors with a nonsense compliance headache, while letting Microsoft publicly claim it’s “protecting the kids” while getting kudos from Congress."

In the past, Microsoft has somtimes decided that its business interests are more important than LGBTQ+ people. They hired their "$1.6 million man" Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition to lobby for them in 1999.  In 2005, facing the threat of a boycott, Microsoft dropped support for a Washington state gay rights bill, which proceeded to fail by a single vote. I worked at Microsoft at the time, and still remember the meeting with gay, lesbian, queer, and trans employees where Brad Smith (before he wasPresident) defended that decision. Of course he personally thought LGBTQ+ rights were important, as did the rest of Microsoft's leadership team ... but, business is business.

Back in 2005, Microsoft employees didn't buy it.  In fact we were so upset that we organized effectively and worked with outside LGBTQ groups on a pressure campaign. Within a few weeks Microsoft reversed their stance and announced they'd upport the bill next session, with CEO Steve Ballmer citing the "passionate e-mails" he had gotten from many employees as a big part of the reason. Later that month Microsoft severed ties with Ralph Reed. The Washington state bill passed next session. Huzzah!

History doesn't repeat it self, but sometimes it rhymes. I wonder if whether Smith hasn't realized the similarties to 2005 yet? Maybe he has, and just thinks it'll come out different this time.  On the one hand, all the layoffs Microsoft and other companies have been doing are likely to have a chilling effect on employees thinking of organizing on. Then again, employee activism is having a moment in the tech universe, with unions forming and OpenAI employees forcing their board to reverse positions on a business-critical issue. boyd's almost certainly not the only Microsoft employee who's unhappy about KOSA.

Who knows, Microsoft might well have some leverage to improve KOSA if they said "uh, look, we are getting some intense stakeholder pressure here and unless we can get some concessions we may have to back out." Or perhaps the rhyming organizing and activism will take place around Snap, or other Big Tech companies who haven't yet taken a position publicly, or all of the above.  We shall see!

If people or groups involved in activism pressuring Microsoft, Snap, or other Big Tech companies have links to share – petitions, action items, events, blog posts, etc – please let me know!

Congress could do something if they really want to help kids

More positively, though, if Congress decides they actually wanted to help kids  there are some good bills they could be considering. Senator Wyden and Representatives Eshoo and Fitzpatrick have just reintroduced the Invest in Child Safety Act, which sounds to me like it really would help protect children from online explotation. Matthew Lane's KOSA Won’t Make The Internet Safer For Kids. So What Will? has some other good suggestions, some of which really would rein in Big Tech.

And Congress could fix the problems with KOSA. There are reports that the sponsors are working with Senator Cantwell (who along with Sen. Markey talked during the Senate markup about how much feedback she had gotten about the bill's harm to LGBTQ+ people and acknowledge that work needed to be done). I'm somewhat skeptical, tbh: Sen. Blumenthal in the past has been, uh, less than candid when he's claimed that amendments to the bill have "addressed concerns"; and it won't work if Republicans insist on the anti-LGBTQ+ aspects of the bill to stay on board. But then again Republicans may decide that actually heliping kids is better than run on a platform of "we had a chance to help your kids but decided we care more about hurting LGBTQ+ kids and kids with eating disorders" and as Evan Greer said in the quote I started the piece off with, there really are a lot of common-sense reforms that could improve the bill.

And activism can make a difference.  KOSA still needs to pass the Senate, which isn't a slam-dunk – as I was writing this, Sen. Ron Wyden restated his strong opposition. And then it needs to get through the House, which given how polarized everything is these days may not be easy. The broad alliance of groups and grassroots activists who oppose KOSA has organized very effectively and over the last six months has gotten a lot of good press as well as great testimonials and a much stronger presence on TikTok (whose Singaporean CEO Shou Chew faced some incredibly racist questionig from Republican Senator Tom Cotton during the Senate hearing).

As Can the Fediverse Help Stop Bad Internet Bills? discusses, there are some great opportunies for organizing here.  The Bad Internet Bills Lemmy community has grown to 184 subscribers, although frequently experiences software problems (in fact it's currently down). There's a lot of energy around KOSA elsewhere in the fediverse as well – and on Bluesky, too.  It's not surprising; hile social networks run by big tech companies are just fine with KOSA, independent social networks – especially ones with lots of LGBTQ+ people – are much easier targets. The numbers are still relatively small (a few hundred thousand on Bluesky, a million in the fediverse), but a lot of people there are well-connected. So who knows, with luck that'll be a factor too.

Stay tuned!

Take action: EFF's Action Center makes it easy to contact Congress and ask them to oppose KOSA