(WASHINGTON)—The proposed Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) has the potential to undermine online privacy, security, and free expression, while harming the very people the bill aims to protect, namely children, PEN America said today.

The bill, (S.1409), which passed out of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Thursday, although well-intentioned, would likely result in young people losing access to information that would almost universally be regarded as beneficial, such as health and wellness information, PEN America’s digital policy lead, Liz Woolery, said.

As KOSA moves out of Committee, PEN America urges the full Senate to reject the legislation and instead support solutions that will protect children online while upholding free expression and privacy rights. 

Woolery said the bill includes an obligation that platforms ‘act in the best interests’ of minors who use their services. However, this mandate would likely result in minors’ losing access to information 

Noting that KOSA includes a carve-out for the provision of resources on topics like suicide and substance abuse, Woolery explained that the exemption is unlikely to assuage platform concerns about meeting the bill’s obligations: “Platforms would almost certainly choose to over-filter content rather than not—and some platforms might move to prohibit access to minors completely. If KOSA is passed, platforms may opt to ‘play it safe,’ erring on the side of content removal in order to meet the obligations laid out in the legislation.”

State attorneys general would be tasked with enforcing KOSA if it passes, making them the ultimate arbiters of whether support hotlines and factually accurate health information are harmful. “What’s most concerning about KOSA is the effect it will have on minors’ access to information about health and wellbeing. Some of the individuals who are struggling the most won’t be able to get this information when they need it. That should be deeply troubling for parents,” Woolery added. 

In addition, KOSA—as well as in similar bills such as the EARN IT Act and the STOP CSAM Act—threaten end-to-end encryption and the security of digital communications. End-to-end encryption is a secure form of messaging that encodes communications at the source, ensuring that only the sender and recipient–not even the platform hosting the messaging service–will be able to access the shared content.

Woolery said: “It’s not always obvious how a bill that is not designed to be about encryption—and may not even use the word—could have such a drastic impact on the digital security landscape. But the reality is that KOSA and similar pieces of legislation would, with near certainty, result in the disappearance or degradation of end-to-end encrypted services on platforms.” 

“In order to limit their liability, platforms would be incentivized to terminate or modify any service that does not provide them with complete access to user content, and that includes end-to-end encryption,” Woolery said. “This would affect not only the routine tasks many Americans carry out via encrypted services, such as messaging colleagues or friends, accessing medical care, or sharing family vacation photos. It would also jeopardize a critical technology that helps to ensure the safety of refugees, dissidents, and journalists around the world.” 

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057