5 min read

"Think of the children" bills will break free speech

If they pass, it's goodbye to an open, creative, degenerate, anonymous internet.

Hey, welcome to our young list. Today I’m going to dive in by unpacking what we’re calling the Bad Internet Bills, a group of five proposed laws that would drastically expand censorship and surveillance online… whether they mean to or not.

KOSA, EARN IT, STOP CSAM, RESTRICT, and the Cooper Davis Act all come out of a pessimistic-at-best vision of what the internet can be. Because of flaws in their logic and method of action, they’d do irreparable damage to online communities. This would lead to some tragic downstream and offline effects.

Some of these bills classify certain kinds of speech as “harmful” and incentivize its eradication. Others would break important encrypted tools for millions of people.

I’m writing during a Week of Action during which we’re trying to get these bills killed (get involved here). But this really is a hydra—the bad bills keep popping up. The conception underlying all of them is that censorship and control equals safety. That’s what we really have to fight.

File:Hercules slaying the Hydra.jpg
Not this, another thing

Mod rule

It feels safe to say that the internet we’ve got now is far from utopian. Even where it’s affordable to access at adequate speeds from a non-monopoly, a vast chunk of the usable net is captured by profit-motivated corporations hoovering up our daylight hours and our data in an accountability vacuum that could comfortably sit beside Henry Kissinger’s.

We’re not going back in time, so these are problems that need to be addressed. But, as you might guess, the bills we’re worried about wouldn’t fix any of these issues. Instead, they’d make the status quo even worse by empowering a tiny minority to circumscribe the content we see and the tools we use.

Prohibition and puritanism

Some of these bills (KOSA, EARN IT, STOP CSAM) cut a direct path towards government censorship. They either give platforms new liability for hosting so-called “harmful” content, or push for the use of unconstitutional content filters that scan everything we post for potential violations. These bills follow in the footsteps of SESTA/FOSTA—a terrific failure of a law that proved platforms would rather demolish lifesaving resources than catch a lawsuit.

Broadly speaking, these are prohibition-style rules, the convoluted online equivalent of a banned books list. They’re short-sighted and illogical—SESTA/FOSTA demonstrated that censorship actually makes it more difficult to solve and prosecute internet-enabled crimes. On top of that, they play right into the hands of right-wingers eager to scrub the internet of information about sex, identity, and history.

KOSA, a front-running contender for passage, gives state Attorneys General the authority to decide what’s harmful to kids, and therefore what’s a legal liability to host. Based on past statements, it’s pretty easy to predict what someone like Alabama AG Steve Marshall thinks is harmful to kids, and it only begins with gender-affirming care.

These bipartisan “compromises” might look like Big Tech regulation, but they’re really targeting online speech. If any of them pass, it’ll open a Pandora’s box of content erasures that will target information that’s already on the margins: things like harm reduction resources, sex and reproductive education, and artwork and fanworks.

Image of John Waters with overlaid text: "Remember, pornographers have always been on our side. Brave, ready to fight for our rights. Smut is our friend"
Defend AO3 at all costs

Unfortunately, many congresspeople are bought out. They’re substituting content control for privacy and antitrust laws that would actually do something about a business model that depends on addiction, division, and exploitation. We can call our representatives over and over (and you should! here), but we also need to wrest control of the narrative back from people that claim the only good internet is a childproofed one.

An end to encryption

A few Bad Internet Bills have another side: EARN IT, STOP CSAM, the Cooper Davis Act and potentially KOSA could break every piece of end-to-end encrypted tech, because they’d let providing encryption itself be used as evidence of wrongdoing. If these bills pass, apps like Signal, WhatsApp, and ProtonMail would be in the hot seat. They’d likely be forced to either open up their users’ messages or shut down completely.

End-to-end encryption is a lifesaving technology in all kinds of situations. Activists, journalists, and healthcare providers need the assurance that their messages are safe. But privacy is important for everyone. We all have something to hide, even if we we don’t know it yet.

As laid out in a 10-year-old post by Signal founder Moxie Marlinspike, the corpus of US laws is so large and complex that the government itself can’t count them all. The practical effect of this is that if someone wanted Ray Kinsella behind bars, they could poke around for a flatfile of cornfield-baseball zoning restrictions.

Also I guess this actually happened

One important point here is that post-Roe, millions of us live in a constantly shifting map of bodily autonomy restrictions. It should make us uneasy that lawmakers are lining up behind bills that would abolish a critical technology keeping abortion seekers and providers safe online.

The bigger picture

There’s a lot of history behind the movement to control speech on the internet. Right-wing lawmakers have had a while to refine a strategy that uses the “protect the kids” messaging to mask a censorship agenda. Another tactic appears to be straight up volume: the Bad Internet Bills are being pitted against each other so at least one of them makes it through.

If these bills pass, our online experience will transform: imagine a thousand segmented, ID-restricted instances that block content based on your age, location, maybe even gender; an internet without sex worker resources or identity-based support groups; an even more corporate, santitized place with no privacy islands in sight.

There is still a lot of potential in the internet. It’s a force multiplier—it can inject movements with a unique form of mass power. But if we lose ground on free expression and security, it suddenly becomes way less likely that the 99% can take up those reins.

KOSA is going up for a committee vote tomorrow. Other bills might get shoved into the National Defence Authorization Act, the “must-pass” spending bill (in this vein, gender affirming care bans are being tacked onto a whole host of must-pass legislation.) Take action with us here and spread the word; regular posting (whatever that will be) resumes post-Week of Action.