Revised Web Safety Bill Still Tramples Free Speech, Opponents Say

Federal lawmakers have revised the proposed Kids Online Safety Act -- a controversial bill that would require web companies to act in the “best interests” of users under 17 -- but even with revisions, the bill continues to raise concerns of digital rights advocates.

The bill “still contains this glaring and unconstitutional flaw at its core,” the advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation said Thursday in a blog post.

The group added that passage of the bill would result in “an internet that is less vibrant, less diverse, and contains less accurate information than the one we have now.”

The Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663) would require web companies to take to design their services with young users' “best interests” in mind, including by taking steps to prevent or mitigate eating disorders, self-harm and substance abuse.



Critics say the bill is unconstitutional for several reasons, including that it effectively mandates websites to curb content protected by free-speech principles -- such as material associated with eating disorders.

Opponents also argue that the proposed law is unworkable, given that web companies have no way to know for sure what types of material will exacerbate minors' eating disorders, substance use or other harmful behavior.

The revised language, which was unveiled this week, specifies that the bill does not require web companies to prevent users “from deliberately and independently searching for, or specifically requesting, content.”

Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, which supports the bill, says that language "is clearly intended to distinguish between delivering search results to a minor who is actively seeking out information or using engagement optimizing algorithms to deliver harmful content that a minor has never requested."

But the Electronic Frontier Foundation says the revised language "creates a legal trap."

"The bill still creates liability for any service that delivers the content to the user," the group writes. 

“A law that claims it doesn’t censor content because people can still search for it is fundamentally flawed if the bill also says that services cannot deliver the content,” the organization adds writes.

The revision comes as proponents are pressing lawmakers to include the bill in this year's must-pass omnibus spending bill.

The measure, introduced earlier this year by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee), advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee in July.

On December 12, the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Fairplay and dozens of other groups sent a letter to House and Senate leaders, urging them to pass the proposed law.

The bill “has the potential to significantly improve young people’s wellbeing by transforming the digital environment for children and teens,” the groups write.

A final version of the omnibus spending bill could be unveiled on Monday.

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