EARN IT act targets online child abuse but could threaten encryption

Tech companies are protected from liability for what users post, but this bill threatens that.

Just as a number of tech companies and online services agreed to voluntary guidelines on protecting kids and reduce exploitation online, several senators introduced legislation that they claim will force companies to take the issue even more seriously. Dubbed the "Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019," (EARN IT), the bill threatens to pull immunity given to providers under Section 230 for the things users post, unless they take certain steps to block online sexual child abuse.

The ACLU issued a statement in opposition to the bill on the basis that it will lead to the introduction of backdoors that reduce the security and privacy of everyone, with Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane saying "Because of the safety and security encryption provides, Congress has repeatedly rejected legislation that would create an encryption backdoor. This legislation would empower an unelected commission to effectively mandate what Congress has time and again decided against, while also jeopardizing free expression on the Internet in the process."

The bill has powerful backers in the Senate, including Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R), Richard Blumenthal (D) and Dianne Feinstein (D). In a statement introducing the bill, Blumenthal said "Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility. Companies that fail to comport with basic standards that protect children from exploitation have betrayed the public trust granted them by this special exemption. Online platforms' near complete immunity from legal responsibility is a privilege – they have to earn it – and that's what our bipartisan bill requires."

The EFF has previously spoken out about drafts of the legislation and the danger of undermining Section 230, and activists are already organizing against the legislation. Tech Freedom president Berin Szóka claimed in a response that "today's largely effective system for policing CSAM (child sex abuse material) will come crashing down overnight — and those convicted of generating, disseminating and consuming CSAM could walk free."

A Judiciary Committee hearing on the bill is already scheduled to take place on Wednesday, March 11th at 10 AM ET.