WASHINGTON — Clad in black clothing and clutching posters of their deceased children, dozens of parents went to Capitol Hill this week for Wednesday’s explosive Senate hearing with the CEOs of the major tech companies in the hot seat.
On Thursday, after the chief executives of X, Meta, Snap, Discord and TikTok were gone, they stayed behind to personally lobby members of Congress to pass legislation they say could help prevent more families from experiencing the tragedies that they have.
The Kids Online Safety Act, or KOSA for short, was introduced two years ago by bipartisan duo Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. If passed and enacted into law, it would provide children and their parents with more safeguards and tools to protect their well-being online. The bill requires online platforms to prevent or mitigate the promotion of self-harm, eating disorders, sexual exploitation and substance abuse to minors under the age of 16.
The parents, mostly moms, who traveled from across the country said they see real momentum toward passing the bill after Wednesday’s hearing.
“It’s a David and Goliath story,” Maurine Molak, whose son, David, died by suicide at the age of 16 after monthslong cyberbullying on Instagram, told NBC News on Thursday.
“We are fighting this billion-dollar lobby campaign against the work that we’re doing. Our children matter and we’re sick and tired of [Big Tech] deploying all of these people to crush the work that we’re doing here,” she added.
The bill would also default application controls to the most stringent option to protect minors, allowing parents to control their kids’ privacy and account settings, and that includes an option to “opt-out” of algorithmic recommendations. Platforms would be required to issue annual independent audits that identify the risks of harm to minors and compliance with the law.
But the bill has also faced criticism, particularly after a video of Blackburn appearing to suggest that it could be used to censor transgender content went viral. Others worry the bill would be used to censor online speech far beyond the abusive and harmful content these parents are hoping to target.
Blackburn's Legislative Director Jamie Susskind said previously that the senator was talking about "two separate issues" and her comments were "taken out of context. KOSA will not — nor was it designed to — target or censor any individual or community."
Blumenthal said he and Blackburn believe their bill could be the first major piece of legislation in years that Congress passes to regulate the internet “partly because of the parents who have mobilized to come here with the courage and strength to tell their stories of grief and pain,” noting that the momentum now “really feels different.”
Blackburn agreed, predicting: “This is going to be that first piece that gets across the finish line.”
Joann Bogard, whose 15-year-old son Mason died after trying a viral social media challenge in 2019, was among the parents who lobbied members on Thursday. She and others held photos of their children behind tech CEOs at the hearing the day before to make their case for KOSA, earning an apology from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“It is the strongest bill out there. It’s the one that’s going to give parents tools that they need to protect our kids online better. It’s going to put that onus back on the social media companies, so they have to fix their flawed product. And it requires them to be transparent,” Bogard said. “We need that bill that’s going to do a lot, not just one piece of it. We need it to do a lot.”
The senators, parents and advocates rallying in support of the legislation know it won’t be easy.
“These folks have a lot of strength in the political world,” Blumenthal said, referring to Big Tech companies who have spent hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ward off federal regulation, according to public data on OpenSecrets. “The employees they can muster and the disinformation they can propagate and the campaign contributions they can give, in all the ways that business as usual is done, they’ll prevail. This can’t be business as usual. This cause is too important.”
The legislation received a boost this week when Snap, the company that owns Snapchat, became the first major tech platform to back KOSA. Microsoft later followed suit when their vice chairman and president posted his endorsement of the legislation on X. And during Wednesday’s hearing, X CEO Linda Yaccarino offered her support for the bill for the first time. Meta, Discord and TikTok did not weigh in.
Opponents of the legislation, including civil rights groups and some lawmakers, say that its definition of harm is too broad, leading to possible censorship of content that promotes politically polarizing issues, gender equality, or abortion rights.
Rep. Maxwell Frost, D-Fla., told NBC News in a statement that while "Congressional leaders and our government have a duty to protect kids online," he opposes KOSA.
The bill, Frost said, "contains major, detrimental loopholes that are going to empower states with extremist leaders, like in my home state of Florida, to use the provisions in this legislation to bully and try to erase the existence of LGBTQ+ and particularly trans people online, while at the same time threatening our right to privacy by requiring everyone to upload their ID in order to verify their age to go online."
Blumenthal signaled this week that the senators are open to amending some of the language to get more lawmakers on board.
“We’re in continuing conversations with a variety of stakeholders about specific provisions of the bill,” Blumenthal said during a press conference on Tuesday. “There are some nips and tucks that we’re going to make in response to concerns, very legitimate points that many of these groups have made. And we hope, hope, within a very short period of time to have a final version."
A spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told NBC News in a statement that “children’s online safety is a priority” for their legislative agenda this year.
“While we work to pass the supplemental and keep the government funded in the coming weeks, Leader Schumer will continue to work with the sponsors of the online safety bills to ensure the necessary support,” they said.
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at 988lifeline.org. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional support.