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EXCLUSIVE: Sen. Blumenthal defends Kids Online Safety Act

Blackburn comment on ‘trans influence’ raises alarms

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

Responding to criticism from some in the LGBTQ community about the Kids Online Safety Act, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) defended the legislation and reiterated his strong support for queer youth.

“I would never put my name on any bill that targets or disparages or harms the trans or LGBTQ community,” Blumenthal told the Washington Blade on Friday.

“There have been a lot of eyes” on the Kids Online Safety Act, he said. “A lot of very smart and careful people have reviewed its language, and they and I have worked to make it as rigorous and tight as possible.”

The proposed legislation, introduced by Blumenthal and Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), would address harms experienced by children and their families at the hands of dominant social media and tech platform companies. It enjoys broad bipartisan support in the Senate.

Critics took issue with previous iterations of the bill, however, raising alarms that conservative state attorneys general tasked with enforcing its provisions might treat positive or tonally neutral LGBTQ content as harmful to children under the statute.

A coalition of organizations issued a letter last year warning Congress that “online services would face substantial pressure to over-moderate,” at a time in which “books with LGBTQ+ themes are being banned” and “people providing healthcare to trans children are being falsely accused of ‘grooming.'”

Blumenthal told the Blade changes to the 2023 version in areas including the duty of care, which were made in consultation with a bevy of LGBTQ groups and individual advocates, have changed these organizations’ positions on the legislation.

“We have tightened the statute – tightened and clarified the statute – as much as we can to try to make it as rigorous as possible to avoid both the misuse and potential chilling effect,” the senator said.

He also highlighted some reasons for the urgent need for passage.

“The real devastating harms done to children by the bullying,” along with toxic content promoting eating disorders and suicide, “largely as a result of black-box algorithms, is the kind of evil that I have fought throughout my career,” he said.

The senator has fought for accountability from these companies for decades, combatting child predation on Myspace and Facebook as attorney general of Connecticut in the early aughts and, in Congress, championing antitrust reforms targeting Big Tech that have come to the fore in recent years.

He has also been a staunch pro-equality ally for the LGBTQ community, earning a perfect 100 on the Congressional Scorecard from the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest LGBTQ advocacy group.

“I care deeply about that community as is evidenced by a lifetime of work in this area, as attorney general and now as the U.S. senator,” he said.

“The Kids Online Safety Act is designed to give children and their parents tools to protect themselves,” Blumenthal said, “and also to impose accountability on those companies that are profiteering; achieve more transparency about those algorithms; and give parents reporting mechanisms and other means, in effect, to take back control and [also for] children to take back control.”

The proposed bill would require covered platforms to “take reasonable measures” to “prevent and mitigate” harms to youth such as “anxiety, depression, eating disorders, substance use disorders, and suicidal behaviors,” along with “patterns of use that indicate or encourage addiction-like behaviors” and “physical violence, online bullying, and harassment of the minor.” 

LGBTQ youth are affected by these challenges and harms, too, and in many cases, disproportionately.

“Take bullying, for example,” Blumenthal told the Blade. No longer relegated to the school yard, this behavior follows victims home, he said, adding, “the addictive quality of social media is so powerful that it can be all consuming.”

During an interview Thursday on the Rated LGBT Radio program, attorney Laura Marquez-Garrett noted how LGBTQ youth will turn to social media platforms searching for affirmation about their sexual orientation or gender identity only to find “this really harmful experience that is causing, in many cases, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.”

Marquez-Garrett, a litigator who left her law practice in 2020 to join the Social Media Law Center, explained the Kids Online Safety Act includes a carve-out, “added in the last couple months, which says that a covered platform has no duty to prevent or preclude any minor under 17 from deliberately and independently searching for or specifically requesting content.”

Still, concerns persisted after Blackburn noted, in March, efforts toward “protecting minor children from the transgender [sic] in this culture and that influence” before talking about the Kids Online Safety Act.

Her legislative director later clarified that, “KOSA will not — nor was it designed to — target or censor any individual or community.”

Addressing these matters, Blumenthal told the Blade, “whatever anyone including Senator Blackburn may say about their personal beliefs, I know what the bill does and that’s what’s important here.”

“My goal,” he said, is to remedy the problems caused by social media and online platforms, problems that in too many cases are fatal for young people, while avoiding “any of the unintended consequences” because “it’s not enough to have good motives.”

Blumenthal said that while “my colleagues on the Republican side and I may differ in certain beliefs about a wide variety of issues” and “Senator Blackburn and I vote together a small minority of times, where we’re united, we try to work together.”

“And we’re united on preventing the harms that are so egregiously crippling and killing,” he added.

So, Blumenthal said, “looking at it substantively, putting aside who’s for it and who’s against it, I think on the merits, it holds up. The merits and the substance and the actual words of the proposed statute really refute those arguments that the tech companies have sought to make.”

Asked whether he believes the dominant tech platforms and social media companies might be behind efforts to sow doubt and distrust with respect to the Kids Online Safety Act among LGBTQ and other communities, the senator noted, “they have no compunction about distorting or misrepresenting the facts and trying to twist and deceive about specific provisions of legislation.”

“They resort to any and every means,” he said, “And they will try to exploit communities that may be susceptible to their misrepresentation.”

Additionally, Blumenthal said, the “tech and social media companies have – I don’t know how to put it politely – but they’ve essentially tried to ignore the important changes that we have made” including “the narrowing of the duty of care provisions” and “the broadening of support services.”

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Congress

Shutdown averted with bipartisan bill over objections of far-right House caucus

45-day continuing resolution passed 335-91.

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U.S. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) (Screen capture/PBS News)

The U.S. House on Saturday approved a 45-day continuing resolution that, should the Senate approve the stopgap measure, as expected, will avert a government shutdown.

In a stunning turn of events, a coalition of Republicans and Democrats backed the proposal, H.R. 5860 advanced by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), which was passed with a vote of 335-91.

Ninety Republicans and one Democrat voted against the continuing resolution which, in addition to funding U.S. government agencies through mid-November, will provide billions in disaster relief .

Screenshot/C-SPAN

Democrats agreed to the bill even though it did not contain U.S. aid to Ukraine. Still, the most conservative members of McCarthy’s caucus have warned they would replace their speaker if he cooperated with Democrats on a deal to avoid a shutdown.

In recent weeks, these members advanced far-right anti-LGBTQ amendments to spending packages that stood no chance of becoming law.

The Senate voted 88-9 to pass a “clean” continuing resolution (CR) that funds the government at current levels through Nov. 17 and gives the Biden administration $16 billion it requested to assist victims of natural disasters.

“Bipartisanship, which has been the trademark of the Senate, has prevailed. And the American people can breathe a sigh of relief,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters.

After the Senate voted late Saturday evening to pass the House stop-gap continuing resolution, the White House released the following statement from President Biden:

“Tonight, bipartisan majorities in the House and Senate voted to keep the government open, preventing an unnecessary crisis that would have inflicted needless pain on millions of hardworking Americans. This bill ensures that active-duty troops will continue to get paid, travelers will be spared airport delays, millions of women and children will continue to have access to vital nutrition assistance, and so much more. This is good news for the American people.

But I want to be clear: we should never have been in this position in the first place. Just a few months ago, Speaker McCarthy and I reached a budget agreement to avoid precisely this type of manufactured crisis. For weeks, extreme House Republicans tried to walk away from that deal by demanding drastic cuts that would have been devastating for millions of Americans. They failed.

While the Speaker and the overwhelming majority of Congress have been steadfast in their support for Ukraine, there is no new funding in this agreement to continue that support. We cannot under any circumstances allow American support for Ukraine to be interrupted. I fully expect the Speaker will keep his commitment to the people of Ukraine and secure passage of the support needed to help Ukraine at this critical moment.”

Biden is expected to sign the measure once it is delivered to the White House before the midnight deadline.

UPDATED:

On Saturday, September 30, 2023, the President signed into law:
 
H.R. 5860, which provides fiscal year appropriations to Federal agencies through November 17, 2023, for continuing projects of the Federal Government and extends several expiring authorities.

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Congress

McCarthy dealt another blow by far-right members seeking to replace him

Rep. Emmer denies he’s interested in becoming next Speaker

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Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

After joining with the Democrats on Friday to sabotage House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (Calif.) plan to forestall a government shutdown with a last-ditch spending package, a group of far-right members are now focused on replacing him.

The stop-gap funding bill was defeated 232-198 with more than 20 Republicans voting against the measure.

House GOP sources tell the Washington Blade that removing McCarthy from the speaker’s chair is now a top priority, along with resisting pressure from Senate Republicans seeking to broker a deal to avoid allowing funding to lapse.

These sources confirmed reporting in the Washington Post about discussions of tapping U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer (Minn.) to become the chamber’s top Republican, though the congressman told CBS Minnesota/WCCO News, “I fully support Speaker McCarthy. He knows that and I know that. I have zero interest in palace intrigue. End of discussion.”

While Emmer was among the 39 House Republicans who voted with the Democrats in support of the Respect for Marriage Act, which protects the rights of couples in same-sex marriages, in April he was among the more vocal members pushing for a federal ban to prohibit transgender women and girls from competing on sports teams consistent with their gender identity.

In January, McCarthy narrowly secured his bid for the speakership after an unprecedented 15 votes from his caucus. Many of the same members now calling for his replacement demanded concessions, including conditioning their votes on McCarthy’s agreement to allow any member to call for a motion to vacate the chair at any time.

During the votes, which were held over a period of five days, other members like U.S. Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) were nominated for the position.

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Congress

House passes Boebert’s amendment targeting LGBTQ workers at USDA

Democrats call measure ‘blatantly homophobic’

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U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

House Republicans on Wednesday pushed through a proposal by U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) that would prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from using federally appropriated funds for materials supporting the agency’s LGBTQ employees.

Passing by just three votes in the face of unified opposition from Democrats, along with one GOP member, U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.), the measure will never be signed into law amid Democratic control of the Senate and White House.

For weeks, Boebert and her ideological allies in the lower chamber have dashed hopes of forestalling a government shutdown by insisting on ladening must-pass spending bills with far-right demands, often targeting the LGBTQ community and initiatives promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Even so, the aim and scope of the Colorado congresswoman’s amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill was striking.

Among the 17 types of “courses, books, or study guides” circumscribed in the measure are those concerning “approaching LGBT issues in the workplace,” “understanding and supporting LGBTQ+ employees,” “becoming an ally to all,” “conversations with LGBTQ+ leaders on the power of identity,” and “creating an inclusive work community” for transgender employees.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Spokesperson Viet Shelton condemned House Republicans’ passage of the amendment in a statement shared with the Washington Blade:

“In a clear indication that so-called moderate Republicans are now completely controlled by their extreme fringes, they are now passing such blatantly homophobic legislation that mandates federal employees be discriminated against in the workplace,” he said. “Their focus on these hateful policies while ignoring middle class families struggling with rising costs is why they will lose their majority in Congress next year.”

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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