The Internet Is About to Get a Lot Worse
We've all watched in horror as red states have banned books in schools and libraries. We've seen teachers fired merely for reading a book about gender identity, or for discussing their own families. We've seen school libraries turned into discipline centers. People who claim to support parental rights and liberty have been waging a war against supportive parents and free expression, and the ultimate goal is to push LGBTQIA+ stories and lives back into the closet, by any means necessary.
For now at least, you can still talk freely about being trans or queer on the Internet, without fear of overt censorship*. You might well face online harassment and violent threats, and you might even face real-world consequences if you get on the radar of the worst people. But the Internet does not suppress the trans and queer stories that are being violently removed from schools, libraries, and other public spaces in much of the country right now.
That's about to change — unless we all take action.
A new bill called the Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA, is sailing towards passage in the Senate with bipartisan support. Among other things, this bill would give the attorney general of every state, including red states, the right to sue Internet platforms if they allow any content that is deemed harmful to minors. This clause is so vaguely defined that attorneys general can absolutely claim that queer content violates it — and they don't even need to win these lawsuits in order to prevail. They might not even need to file a lawsuit, in fact. The mere threat of an expensive, grueling legal battle will be enough to make almost every Internet platform begin to scrub anything related to queer people.
The right wing Heritage Foundation has already stated publicly that the GOP will use this provision to remove any discussions of trans or queer lives from the Internet. They're salivating over the prospect.
And yep, I did say this bill has bipartisan support. Many Democrats have already signed on as co-sponsors. And President Joe Biden has urged lawmakers to pass this bill in the strongest possible terms.
But here's what the bill actually says. (If you don't care about the gnarly details, feel free to skip over the next two paragraphs.)
The bill says that "mental health disorder" should be defined according to the latest definition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders. It later says that Internet companies will have to "mitigate" anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance abuse and suicidal behaviors, and these disorders should be defined based on "evidence-informed medical information." So far, at least it's all evidence-based, right? (Except you can cherry-pick your evidence, of course.)
But then later, it says that any state attorney general may sue an Internet company if they have "reason to believe that an interest of the residents of that State has been or is threatened or adversely affected" by its content. Before filing a lawsuit, AGs are supposed to notify a special commission in writing, but this requirement is waived if the AG believes that the notification is "not feasible."
In other words, the attorney general of Texas, Florida, Alabama or Tennessee has basically free reign to sue, or threaten a lawsuit, any time they can claim something on the internet is bad for kids. And there's no evidence required — the AGs simply need to have "reason to believe" something is harmful.
The bill also imposes a nebulous "duty of care" standard on websites, requiring them to be responsible for any underage users. There's also a poorly drafted section that says the law applies to any platforms that should reasonably know that minors are using the site, which many are interpreting to mean that sites will need to collect your driver's license or some other identification to ensure that you are an adult. This language was softened from an earlier draft, but still seems to impose a heavy requirement for age verification on sites.
We've already seen with SESTA/FOSTA what happens when well-meaning legislators try to protect vulnerable people on the Internet without doing their homework. You end up with widespread censorship and already-stigmatized people being driven underground. Except this time, it'll be everyone the GOP doesn't like.
I've seen folks online saying this bill can't possibly be constitutional. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. In the end, it'll be up to the Supreme Court — and even if this law gets defanged in court eventually, it could still do incalculable damage first.
I really do understand why people are concerned about teenagers on social media suffering from eating disorders, thoughts of self-harm, or worse. We desperately need a comprehensive privacy law, and restrictions on the tactics that online platforms years to make themselves more addictive and to boost engagement, including shitty algorithms. But for many teens, this bill will only cut them off from any support and expose them to more surveillance, all in the name of protecting them. We'll all be less free, and less safe.
I'm not one of those people who believes there's no difference between Democrats and Republicans. The contrast between our current president and his predecessor is actually pretty stark. To be honest, if I didn't believe that most elected Democrats sincerely want to do the right thing, I wouldn't get nearly so angry when they fall short, as they so often do.
But if this homophobic, transphobic bill passes with overwhelming Democratic support and is signed by Joe Biden, I am done. I'll probably still vote, because it's my duty as a citizen, but I'll have a hard time supporting either party in any serious way.
I really wanted this week's newsletter to be about space opera, or some of my favorite books. There's something terribly wrong if you all have to get important legislative news from a goofy science fiction writer. But there's no way to ignore the huge threat this bill poses, and many people are still not aware.
If you live anywhere in the United States — even if your senators have already endorsed this bill — please call or email them right now. Tell them it will impose an unacceptable burden on small businesses, and that it will worsen the very harms it is intended to address. As things stand right now, KOSA seems almost guaranteed to pass — so it's on all of us to step up and make our voices heard.
(For more on KOSA, check out all the excellent coverage at TechDirt.)
* I recognize Twitter is... complicated. But still, in general.
I've been traveling a ton and dealing with family stuff, and now I just got a positive COVID test. (I'm doing fine. Taking paxlovid and resting up.) So I'm just going to copy/paste some links from my previous newsletter, sorry.
For the past year, I've been the monthly science fiction and fantasy book reviewer for the Washington Post. You can read all my columns here, including one that came out last week.
I wrote a young adult trilogy, and the final book (Promises Stronger Than Darkness) came out in April. It's basically the gayest shit ever, featuring a team of outrageous queers saving all of the worlds with the power of creativity and getting each other's pronouns right.
I co-created a trans superhero for Marvel. Escapade made her debut in the 2022 pride issue, and then I wrote her in New Mutants Vol. 4 and New Mutants: Lethal Legion (pre-order). Shela Sexton is a trickster and thief who has the power to trade places with anyone, and her best friend is a dapper transmasc enby named Morgan. They also have a flying turtle named Hibbert, and Shela has a complicated relationship with Cerebella, who used to be a brain in a globe.
I'm still doing the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct with Annalee Newitz, all about the meaning of science fiction, science and futurism. Lately we've done some episodes about how Silicon Valley deliberately misinterprets the science fiction stories they claim to love. (Subscribe here.)