Advocates blast House for holding Kids Online Safety Act ‘hostage’

Advocates pushing for social media regulations to keep kids safe online blasted the House for cancelling a Thursday markup of the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) amid opposition to a separate data privacy bill also slated to be considered.

A House Energy and Commerce Committee markup of 11 bills, including KOSA and the American Privacy Rights Act, was cancelled Thursday shortly before it was scheduled to begin after House Republican leaders strongly resisted the privacy bill.

Child online safety advocates slammed the decision to cancel the markup and said Congress should take action on KOSA separate from other tech bills, including the American Privacy Rights Act (APRA).

“To me this is hostage taking,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the advocacy group Fairplay for Kids.

“[The committee] could have marked up KOSA without APRA,” Golin added, noting that Congress has been “trying for decades” to pass a comprehensive data privacy bill.

“There’s no reason why families should have to wait for that in order to have a safer internet,” Golin added.

KOSA would create regulations for how social media companies operate for minors and has gained momentum after years of hearings featuring tech company CEOs and whistleblowers about the harms social media has on youth mental health.

The bill would require companies to limit access or allow minors to opt out of certain features, like automatic video playing and algorithmic recommendations, and also legally obligate the platforms to prevent the promotion of content about certain topics, such as suicide, eating disorders and self-harm.

The bill faced opposition from some civil society groups who feared the duty of care standard could be interpreted in a way that could limit teens from accessing information about gender identity, sexuality and reproductive health. The text of the bill has been updated in response to concerns raised, and in February several LGBTQ advocacy groups, including GLAAD and the Human Rights Campaign, withdrew their opposition.

Danny Weiss, chief advocacy officer for the advocacy group Common Sense Media, also slammed the House committee for holding KOSA “hostage” over their failure to pass a data privacy bill and urged Congress to act on the bill without consideration of other legislation.

“Congress has once again failed to reach agreement on comprehensive privacy legislation and is holding bipartisan and popular legislation to protect kids’ online safety and privacy hostage as a result,” Weiss said in a statement.

“Kids, teens, and their families are paying the price for Congress’ dereliction of duty to protect them online. As we have said before, the House and the Senate should move ahead immediately with consideration of #KOSA and #COPPA2 regardless of other legislation under consideration. And we stand ready to help the House and the Senate to do just that,” Weiss added.

A House version of the bill was introduced in April by Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.). A Senate version of the bill advanced out of the Senate Commerce Committee and now has more than 60 co-sponsors, enough to pass even with the filibuster rule in place, including support from Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

“Parents and children across America are counting on members of Congress to stand up to the powerful Big Tech platforms and to create a safer online environment, especially for our kids. We don’t have time to wait,” Castor said in a statement.

“I urge the Speaker and Majority Leader to allow the important bipartisan Kids Online Safety Act, Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act 2.0 and the American Privacy Rights Act to move forward. The Energy and Commerce Committee has been working on landmark legislation for over five years, and it is past time for the bipartisan bills to be allowed to move to the full House rather than be scuttled by eleventh hour, Big Tech lobbying,” Castor added.

A spokesperson for House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) declined to comment on why the full markup was cancelled rather than pulling the American Privacy Rights Act. After the markup was cancelled, the chair’s statement only addressed the controversial privacy bill.

A spokesperson for Castor said Thursday their office was not aware that the full markup was going to be cancelled and called the decision disappointing. The spokesperson said discussions are ongoing about plans going forward and whether a markup on KOSA will be tied to one on a comprehensive data privacy bill.

Asked about the cancelled markup and plans for KOSA, a spokesperson for Bilirakis said the congressman “remains committed to empowering parents and strengthening online protections for kids through passage of KOSA.”

Maurine Molak, co-founder of the parent-led advocacy group ParentsSOS, said “we are heartbroken that KOSA, which has broad bipartisan support, was canceled at the last minute due to issues with APRA.”

Molak’s son, David Molak, died by suicide after he faced cyberbullying online. She is one of the parent advocates who formed ParentsSOS to advocate for KOSA.

“Our children’s safety should not be sidelined by unrelated legislative hurdles,” Maurine Molak added.

Zamaan Qureshi, co-chair of the youth-led group Design It For Us, also pushed for quick action on KOSA after Thursday’s cancelled markup — especially given the dwindling legislative calendar.

“With such limited time left this year, Congress does not have the luxury to keep kicking the can down the road. It’s time for our Congressional leaders to step up and make our generation’s safety online a top priority,” Qureshi said in a statement.

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