Technology

Fan fiction writers rally fandoms against KOSA, the bill purporting to protect kids online


Fan fiction writers aren’t just penning alternate universe reimaginings of the Barbie movie, or steamy scenes featuring Marvel superheroes. This week, they’re writing letters to their senators, expressing their concerns that the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA) could change the internet forever.

Despite its appealing name, KOSA has been met with a flood of opposition from a variety of internet communities, from fandom Tumblr to digital privacy watchdogs. In particular, detractors worry that the bill could restrict queer kids’ access to affirming online resources, or make it easier for local governments to surveil abortion seekers.

“I don’t want to have to be forced to attach everything I do online to my real life identity,” said @omarsbigsister, an omegaverse fan fiction writer who has used her platform of 100,000 TikTok followers to advocate against the bill.

Senators Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) first introduced this bipartisan bill last year after a series of Senate hearings on the impact of social media on teen mental health. The bill aims to protect youth safety online by requiring platforms to limit addictive features, allow minors to opt out of algorithmic recommendation systems and restrict access to a minor’s personal data.

Though these proposals may sound agreeable, more than 100 human rights and digital privacy organizations staunchly opposed the bill when it was first proposed, worrying that it could dramatically expand the collection of sensitive personal information and violate the privacy of older teens. The groups also believe KOSA could not be enforced without requiring everyone on the internet to verify their age.

“Age verification may require users to provide platforms with personally identifiable information such as date of birth and government-issued identification documents, which can threaten users’ privacy, including through the risk of data breaches, and chill their willingness to access sensitive information online because they cannot do so anonymously,” states these groups’ open letter, which includes signatories like GLAAD, the EFF and the ACLU.

KOSA was then amended to state that platforms will not be required to implement age verification functionality, but it remains unclear how these platforms could possibly adhere to KOSA’s requirements without age gates.

As it stands, state attorneys general would get the power to enforce KOSA’s mandate for platforms to shield minors from harmful content, but then it’s up to these attorneys general to decide what is harmful or not. KOSA includes language that says these decisions must be “consistent with evidence-informed medical information.” However, medical research can easily be distorted to suit whatever argument a legislator wants to make, so advocates worry that this legislation could still be weaponized to censor content that affirms queer identities.

“The conservative actors that are in favor of KOSA have clearly said they want to use it to limit access to content about being trans,” said Sarah Phillips, a 24-year-old BookTok creator turned digital organizer for Fight for the Future, the digital rights nonprofit mobilizing young people against “bad internet bills.”

But the mental health of queer and trans youth can significantly suffer when they are forced to suppress their identities, and when they can’t be themselves at home or at school, they turn to the internet. A recent study from the Trevor Project found that young LGBTQ people who feel “safe and understood” in online spaces are 20% less likely to have attempted suicide in the last year.

“LGBTQ youth are clearly under attack across the country,” Phillips told TechCrunch.

This year, a record 520 anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced in state legislatures, according to the Human Rights Campaign. Seventy of these bills have become laws, including ones that limit school curriculums and ban gender-affirming care for trans youth. In Florida, the infamous “Don’t Say Gay” law was broadened to impact students through twelfth grade, limiting instruction related to sexuality and gender identity.

“Online is one of the very few places where if you’re a trans or queer creator or artist, you will be accepted,” said @omarsbigsister. “You will find community. You will find your people.”

For nearly half of her life, 25-year-old @omarsbigsister has used the internet to geek out in niche fandoms, building a platform of over 100,000 followers. While she used to post esoteric TikToks imagining the omegaverse during Ramadan, her TikToks have become more political, emphasizing the risk that KOSA and other internet bills have for queer youth.

“This is how I have a community,” she told TechCrunch. “This is how I can have diverse friendships. Like, I’m in the middle of the Midwest. It’s not exactly diverse here.”

In one recent TikTok, she writes, “when someone from the ACLU invites you to a meeting bc of your videos on KOSA but that means very fancy national lawyers who are in supreme court cases saw your omegaverse TikToks,” panning her gaze to stare dramatically into the camera.

She has been joined in this activism by a number of other creators who are seeking to mobilize the communities they built around fan fiction and fandom.

“I learned how to be a digital organizer in fandom spaces,” Phillips said. “That’s how I learned to get people energized about something, and how the internet can work in a political campaign.”

Drake George, who goes live on TikTok to read fluffy bedtime anime fan fiction to their 123,000 followers, says that fandom communities tend to appeal to queer teens, since they can offer a form of escapism.

“I found such a beautiful, diverse space of feeling safe and included in talking with this community as a queer person myself,” George told TechCrunch.

If a Florida teenager can’t talk about being queer at school under “Don’t Say Gay,” they can at least be themselves on the internet. But activists worry that KOSA could strip that right away too.

George says that fandom communities became more concerned about bills like KOSA in early July, when the beloved fan fiction nonprofit Archive of Our Own (AO3) went offline due to DDoS attacks from a hacker group.

“There’s a lot of speculation that this hacker group specifically targeted AO3 because of the queer content that was on it,” George said. Though AO3 came back online within a day, fans worried that the attack could be a harbinger of future problems. If a state attorney general decided under KOSA that fan fiction about queer people, mental health or sex was dangerous to teens, a site like AO3 might be decimated.

“There are groups of people who think that this queer, diverse content should not be accessible and should not be published,” George told TechCrunch. “I think the AO3 shutdown really kind of made that a small reality for people.”

George, Phillips and @omarsbigsister all mentioned receiving frantic DMs from their teen followers, who worried that they could be severed from the internet circles that allow them to safely be themselves.

“If a 12-year-old can read the bill and understand it is a dangerous thing, why can’t these Democratic senators?” @omarsbigsister said. “Why can’t these Democratic senators see that they have completely betrayed the queer community?”