Supporting Online Safety Policies that Protect Everyone

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As the reach of the internet has grown significantly in the last 30 years, the safety of children using online platforms has become an increasing priority. There are real concerns about the risk of bullying, harassment, hate speech, disinformation, and online sexual exploitation and abuse now that children and youth of all ages have some level of access to the internet. There is truly horrible content, and there are people who do wish to abuse and exploit others on online platforms. Children and adults deserve the tools to be safe online, but we cannot support quick fixes that may make some users more vulnerable to exploitation and human trafficking.

Recently, Congress has attempted to take a stand for online child safety, hosting hearings and proposing legislative solutions to a complex issue. While these attempts come from a place of genuine concern for children’s well-being, they will create significant barriers to access to lifesaving resources for the children most vulnerable to trafficking. We cannot adopt measures that prevent LGBTQ+ kids or teens exposed to drugs from accessing a safe community.

FNUSA recently opposed two bills intended to promote child safety because of the unintended impacts of these measures. The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT) attempts to hold online platforms liable for Child Sexual Abuse Material (CSAM) on their platforms. The bill would allow states to pass laws that make companies liable for all CSAM on their platform, even if they do not know it is there. This will lead to overbroad censorship of online speech. We are particularly concerned about the impact this scope of censorship will have on sex workers and LGBTQ+ people, especially in states where legislatures are actively working to restrict the rights of LGBTQ+ residents. We know FOSTA/SESTA, the 2017 law that eliminated some protections for online platforms from liability for sex trafficking by users, resulted in substantial harm to sex workers. There has been no study to evaluate the expected benefits of the law. Further expanding the liability of companies without understanding the impacts will result in sex workers taking more risks and increasing the likelihood of trafficking. Before making any other changes, Congress should pass the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act to understand the impact of the legislation already on the books.

We also opposed the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA). The bill requires online platforms to have a “duty of care” regarding the content promoted to children. This duty of care is intended to require online platforms to restrict harmful content, but we know it will result in blanket restrictions on lifesaving resources like support for trans kids, harm reduction tactics to prevent drug overdose, and eating disorder recovery tools. The bill also allows state Attorneys General to dictate which types of content should be considered harmful by platforms. One of the bill sponsors implied that the bill is intended to prevent youth from accessing content from trans creators. We are deeply concerned about the impact this will have on LGBTQ youth, especially trans youth, in states where their rights are already being limited.

Issues of online safety, resource access, and sex worker rights are inherently linked to human trafficking prevention. People are made more vulnerable to trafficking when they lose access to their income and safety at work, when they cannot access resources that affirm their gender and sexuality and assist with safety planning, or when there are no resources to help them access necessary reproductive healthcare. By limiting access to the internet, instead of empowering children and parents to effectively report real online abuse, we would only be limiting the resources and communities that help make people less vulnerable to human trafficking. Children deserve safety in all aspects of their life, but we have to utilize smart solutions and listen to experts who actually understand how algorithms operate, rather than trying to rush through legislation that will not solve these issues.

Instead, we must address the root causes of trafficking and implement primary prevention strategies. By addressing poverty, unsafe working conditions, inhumane immigration policies, and unaffordable healthcare, education, and childcare, we can greatly reduce vulnerabilities to trafficking. To help protect kids online, we should require tech companies to provide easy-to-access reporting mechanisms when harm occurs and simple tools to take down non-consensual images. Strong restrictions on the collection and use of children’s and adults’ data should be implemented. Efforts to keep kids safe, whether online or in-person, should keep everyone safe. Pushing forward legislation and policies that protect some kids at the expense of marginalized communities does not prevent trafficking; they just enable the abuse and trafficking of others.