• Mon. Jul 15th, 2024

Chuck Schumer faces heat as landmark bill to protect kids online stalls in Congress

Chuck Schumer faces heat as landmark bill to protect kids online stalls in Congress

A landmark bill that would hold Big Tech firms like Meta responsible for online child safety has hit a roadblock in the Senate – and critics are pointing the finger at Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).

The Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA would impose a legal “duty of care” on social media firms to protect minors from harassment, bullying, anxiety and sex abuse – or face enforcement action by the Federal Trade Commission.

The bill has 69 cosponsors across the political spectrum in the Senate, including Schumer and co-lead sponsors Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.). In a surprising twist, Snap, X and Microsoft broke ranks with the tech industry to say they support the measure.

Meta hasn’t taken a firm public stance on KOSA specifically, though the company has said it supports federal regulation on online safety. When asked about an older version of the bill on Capitol Hill earlier this year, TikTok CEO Shou Zi Chew said the company could support it with some changes.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also a co-sponsor of the Kids Online Safety Act. Getty Images

Some of the bill’s proponents, including parents whose children were victims of online abuse, remain optimistic that KOSA will become law before the end of the year. However, others have grown exasperated by Schumer’s failure to schedule a floor vote despite the clear bipartisan support.

“I cannot understand why he’s not bringing it to the floor,” said Mary Rodee, a New York resident who lost her 15-year-old son Riley to suicide in 2015 after he was targeted in a sextortion scheme on Facebook.

“I just have to keep being like, ‘okay, I guess that’s not the plan.’ But that all seems like it’s a political dog-and-pony show.”

Mary Rodee, whose 15-year-old son Riley died by suicide after being victimized by a Facebook extortion scheme, is a vocal advocate for KOSA. REUTERS

Calls to pass the bill gained steam earlier this year after a bombshell Senate hearing in which Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg issued a stunning apology to the families of victims of online child sex abuse. The Facebook and Instagram owner currently faces a federal lawsuit from dozens of states who allege its addictive apps have exposed children to harm and fueled a youth mental health crisis.

Rodee said the apology rang hollow — and lawmakers shouldn’t have allowed it.

“You gave Mark Zuckerberg a stage to apologize to us that he didn’t deserve,” Rodee said. “To me, that never should have happened. I have distrust in all of it.”

Meta did not immediately return a request for comment.

As The Post has reported, KOSA is one of several bipartisan online safety bills on the table — and the one considered most likely to become law. It was introduced in the Senate last year, with companion legislation coming to the House in April.

Schumer has insisted KOSA is a “top priority” and sought to move the bill through unanimous consent, a fast-tracked process to pass legislation as long as no senator objects. Doing so would allow the Senate, which is running short on remaining floor time ahead of the 2024 election, to avoid a lengthier roll call vote.

Parents groups have pressured Congress to pass the Kids Online Safety Act to protect minors. Anadolu via Getty Images

In a floor speech last week, Schumer said some senators still had blocks on the bill and said the Senate “must pursue a different legislative path to get this done” if terms can’t be reached.

One key objector is Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who is not expected to drop his opposition. Paul’s office didn’t return requests for comment.

“They’ve already got moms who’ve had tragedies with their kids coming up to me, but someone has to have the guts to read the bill, see what’s wrong with it,” Paul recently told the Huffington Post. “If they want it unanimously, they have to negotiate.”

Another is Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who, sources said, has sought assurances that KOSA would not weaken Section 230, a controversial statute that shields tech firms from liability for third-party content posted on their platforms. Wyden was one of the statute’s original co-authors.

“There have been productive discussions on KOSA,” a Wyden aide said. “It’s moving in the right direction. He has not yet lifted his hold.”

In the meantime, Parents for Safe Online Spaces, whose bereaved members lost children to online harm, has pressed Schumer to act.

Sen. Rand Paul is one of the known objectors to KOSA. MediaNews Group via Getty Images

Over Father’s Day weekend, the group placed billboards in Times Square urging the senator and other lawmakers to “save kids’ lives” by passing KOSA. The parents also recently sent a letter reminding Schumer that he’d promised to hold a vote by June 20 – a deadline that has come and gone.

“There’s definitely some frustration,” a source close to the situation told The Post. “I think the ads and the letter that the parents sent last week kicked that office into another gear. It’s frustrating that didn’t happen sooner.”

“There’s definitely some frustration,” a source close to the situation told The Post. “I think the ads and the letter that the parents sent last week kicked that office into another gear. It’s frustrating that didn’t happen sooner.”

A Schumer spokesperson said the senator “has helped build bipartisan support for the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) and has met with the families, heard their incredibly moving stories, and is working in lockstep with them to get the bill passed.”

“Leader Schumer will continue to push to lift frivolous holds so we can finally pass this bill and protect millions of American children across the county,” the spokesperson added.

KOSA faced another setback after the House Energy and Commerce Committee abruptly canceled plans Thursday to mark up the bill – the final step before a floor vote in the lower chamber. Advocates are pushing for the markup to be rescheduled after a July 4 recess.

Outside of Congress, the bill has its share of opponents, including the ACLU and the digital advocacy group Fight For The Future. The latter has described KOSA as “a dangerous censorship bill that would give the government unprecedented control over the internet.”

An aide for Sen. Ron Wyden confirmed the Democrat has yet to drop his hold on KOSA. CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Chamber of Progress, a Big Tech-funded trade group, argues the bill will force tech firms to “over-moderate” the internet.

A Blackburn spokesperson noted that KOSA “has the wide support of conservatives across the board including the Heritage Foundation, America First Policy Institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center and dozens of other organizations.”

“Senator Blackburn has fought for years to protect our children online and looks forward to seeing KOSA signed into law,” the spokesperson said.

Despite the remaining hurdles, the bill’s backers say they are optimistic that it will ultimately be passed.

Rodee, who was part of a group of parents that met with Schumer about KOSA in May, said his office has been responsive about the bill’s status, even if progress has been slowed than she’d hoped.

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to the families of victims of online abuse and exploitation. Allison Bailey/NurPhoto/Shutterstock

“I have been very furious at Schumer, but I will say, they communicate very well with me,” said Rodee. “His chief of staff will get on the phone any time I need to be talked down. I do really sense that they’re working on it.”

Blumenthal praised Schumer for leading negotiations with the Senate holdouts and said he was “confident based on my conversations” with the top Democrat that “we are going to get this bill done.”

“It’s remarkable that the parents have gotten things this far,” said Josh Golin, executive director of the online advocacy group Fairplay and co-founder of ParentsSOS. “I can’t even quantify how much we’re outspent and outgunned by the tech industry.”

A TikTok spokesperson said in a statement that the wildly popular photo app “strive(s) to promote a safe and age-appropriate experience on TikTok through robust safety policies and parental controls, a neutral age-gate, and a team of more than 40,000 safety professionals.

“There are a range of potential options that can further youth safety online, and we welcome Congress’ participation in that discussion.”

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