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How tech companies would be affected by the Kids Online Safety Act

DON GONYEA, HOST:

How to keep kids safe online - it's a question that has stumped lawmakers for decades. Even so, there is increasing interest in doing something about it. Last month, senators grilled big tech leaders who were summoned to Capitol Hill. Here's what Senator Lindsey Graham said to Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mr. Zuckerberg, you and the companies before us - I know you don't mean it to be so, but you have blood on your hands. You have a product...

(APPLAUSE)

GRAHAM: You have a product that's killing people.

GONYEA: Then last week, senators introduced a new version of the Kids Online Safety Act. It's aimed at protecting children and teens from harmful and abusive content online. It has strong bipartisan support, and it could be the first big regulation on this topic to make it out of the Senate or the House in years. Here to talk about the future of that bill is Lauren Feiner, a senior policy reporter at The Verge. Welcome, Lauren.

LAUREN FEINER: Thanks for having me.

GONYEA: So it's hard to argue with the idea that online safety for young people is important. Obviously, though, the big question is how to regulate these big platforms. What answer have they come up with? What would this bill require of the companies?

FEINER: So basically, what it would do is both provide for the companies to give certain safeguards for kids that use their platforms. It would also create ways for parents to have more control over things like their kids' privacy settings on their accounts. And really importantly, it would create a duty of care for the platforms to really think about if their tools will be safe for kids to use.

GONYEA: Just that phrase, duty of care - can you just parse that out for me?

FEINER: Yeah. So it really creates a legal obligation on these platforms to take reasonable steps to prevent specific harms that could come to kids on their platform - things like preventing the promotion of suicide or sexual exploitation or substance abuse. So this bill doesn't require age verification in particular. It basically says if a platform can reasonably think that a kid is using their platform - that they have to take these steps to protect them proactively.

GONYEA: Companies are worried about getting sued.

FEINER: Yes, absolutely.

GONYEA: This bill was actually first introduced two years ago. And back then, many advocacy groups believed it might actually endanger young people, possibly by subjecting LGBTQ teens to surveillance through parental controls or by limiting their access to information. But now I understand that some of the groups that opposed it back then are actually getting on board.

FEINER: Yeah, so there's actually a group of LGBTQ+ advocacy groups that have not necessarily given their support to the bill but at least said, we are not going to stand in the way of this bill becoming law any longer because we feel like the changes made at least make us feel like the worst outcomes we were afraid of won't happen as a result of this. But at the same time, you see other groups that feel like that's not enough. They acknowledge that that's a good step forward, but they feel like there's still a long way to go.

GONYEA: OK, to that end, we are going to hear right now from Aaron Mackey. He's a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He said this to NPR.

AARON MACKEY: Paradoxically, what KOSA does is it removes the ability for teens and children to find information when they are experiencing the very sort of health problems and other problems that KOSA is trying to address. So what I would say is that I - while I appreciate where Congress' intentions are, the result is actually going to be more harmful to kids than helpful.

GONYEA: So again, he used that term KOSA, Kids Online Safety Act. And the things he raises there - these are some pretty fundamental worries about censorship.

FEINER: Yeah, I mean, I think it is a legitimate question to wonder, who's to say what is appropriate for kids or what will harm their mental health? You know, I think the bill does try to be more specific in the kinds of harms it's looking to mitigate. But at the same time, you know, companies really don't like ambiguity. They don't like legal gray area. And this creates a lot more questions for them. Some groups have questioned whether this bill will stand up to the First Amendment, as well, so that's something that remains to be seen, too.

GONYEA: And even if this bill clears the Senate, what do we anticipate will happen if, when it gets to the U.S. House?

FEINER: I mean, that's still a big question. Despite all the support that we see in the Senate behind this bill, the House still doesn't have a piece of companion legislation to it. So they're going to have to, in a way, start from scratch over there. And it doesn't take an expert in Congress to see how the House has been operating these days, so that could still be an uphill battle.

GONYEA: All right. Sounds like it's likely a long road ahead, still, for the Kids Online Safety Act. Lauren Feiner, senior policy reporter at The Verge, thanks for joining us.

FEINER: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.