The Kids Online Safety Act will censor student journalists

Caitlin Vogus Headshot

Deputy Director of Advocacy

A woman in a striped shirt sits at a computer keyboard, typing, as another woman in a bluehat looks on and points at the screen.

Student journalists work hard to persist in the face of increasing threats to their First Amendment rights. So the last thing they need is Congress piling on with a bill like the Kids Online Safety Act. Above, student journalists at the Cal Times in 2015. 2015-2-17-CalTimes-Newsroom-Students-1I9A8427 by Student Association is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Today is Student Press Freedom Day, the annual celebration of student journalists’ contributions to their schools and communities. Student reporters work hard to persist in the face of increasing threats to the First Amendment rights, such as school administrators censoring their reporting and shutting down entire student newspapers.

In this climate, the last thing student journalists need is Congress piling on. But that’s exactly what Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Marsha Blackburn have done with their newly revised version of the Kids Online Safety Act.

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We’ve written before about how KOSA is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: It’s a censorship bill hidden behind the mantle of child protection. KOSA has been consistently opposed by LGBTQ+, human rights, and civil liberties organizations because of the threat it poses to the privacy, free expression, and safety of young people.

Last week, in response to the drumbeat of criticism that has dogged the bill for more than two years, Blumenthal and Blackburn unveiled a revised version that they claim solves the bill’s problems. It doesn’t.

Although the revised KOSA now appears to focus on “design features” of online platforms, what remains is the dangerous “duty of care” provision that requires platforms to take steps to prevent and mitigate those under the age of 17 from being exposed to “harmful” content through their design features.

As the advocacy group Fight for the Future explains, platforms will still respond to this new version of KOSA by aggressively filtering and suppressing “controversial” content.

For this reason, KOSA will still censor the news for everyone. But ironically, for a law that’s supposed to protect kids, it may harm student journalists in three ways: one, by making it harder for them to find information online for their reporting; two, by censoring their news stories online; and three, by invading the privacy of student journalists, as well as everyone else.

Stymying student journalists from gathering information on social media

First, KOSA will make it harder for high school journalists to gather information on social media for their reporting. For example, the bill explicitly names information about suicidal behavior as harmful to kids. That means online platforms are likely to respond to KOSA by blocking content that discusses suicide from users under the age of 17, so that a “design feature” such as a recommendation system doesn’t recommend that content to children.

If high school journalists want to report on the issue of teen suicide, they may struggle to find any information about it on social media, including information about suicide prevention or news reports.

The same is true for student journalists who want to report about other issues that students deal with every day: eating disorders (specifically flagged as harmful by KOSA), violence against LGBTQ+ kids (could cause anxiety, forbidden by KOSA), or even climate change (too depressing, also disallowed by the bill).

Censoring student journalists’ reporting

Second, for years, the student press has been using social media to reach audiences. But because KOSA will cause platforms to filter or even remove content that they fear the government will consider harmful to kids, high school journalists may also find their reporting censored on social media as a result of the legislation.

That means that young people may be blocked on social media from seeing the news reporting done by their classmates. For example, platforms may filter or delete student journalists’ news reports on sexual harassment or abuse of students because they relate to sexual exploitation and abuse of minors, which KOSA specifically identifies as harmful content.

Undermining privacy for all

Third, KOSA is also a privacy disaster for student journalists and everyone else. As Mike Masnick at Techdirt has explained, “[N]othing in this bill works unless websites embrace age verification.” To implement KOSA’s requirement to protect minors, online platforms will have to age-verify users. “And the only way to do that is to collect way more information on them, which puts their privacy at risk,” Masnick explains.

Age verification will require online platforms to collect more information on all users, not just young people, meaning that everyone’s privacy will suffer. But it’s particularly pernicious for a children’s “privacy” bill to require minors to turn over sensitive information to the very platforms that are accused of harming them by mining their data in the first place.

Teaching kids that it’s OK, or even required, to reveal sensitive information online also sends a dangerous message, especially to student journalists. Professional reporters must take their online privacy seriously to avoid government surveillance and harassment. We should be teaching student journalists to do the same, not legally requiring them to identify themselves to online platforms so they can be age-verified.

Lawmakers shouldn’t be asking student journalists or any young people to sacrifice their freedom of speech and privacy to “protect” them online. Let’s celebrate Student Press Freedom Day by telling Congress not to censor the student press online. Tell Congress not to pass KOSA.

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