A bill unveiled by lawmakers yesterday that would strip websites’ legal immunity shield if they do not adhere to rules for removing child exploitation content is being criticized by numerous internet freedom groups as a possible way to get around end-to-end encryption.
The bill, the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or EARN IT Act, was introduced by a bipartisan group of senators on Thursday.
The bill would establish a commission that would set “best practices” for getting rid of child exploitation content online. Those best practices would need to be followed by websites, or their liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Act would be stripped. The commission would be made up of the heads of the Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Federal Trade Commission. It would also include 16 additional members appointed by Congress and be chaired by the Attorney General.
Section 230 essentially protects websites from being liable for what is posted on them by third parties. Specifically, it says “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” The section has come under criticism by both the Justice Department and even presidential hopefuls in recent months.
Since one of the “best practices” recommended by the commission could potentially include adding a backdoor to encryption—something the Justice Department has long argued for and would have a say in crafting by being on the commission—the bill was met with fierce resistance among digital rights and advocacy groups.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) called the EARN IT Act “dangerous” earlier this year, adding that it was a “direct threat to constitutional protections for free speech and expression.” EFF has long been vocal in its support of Section 230.
As the EFF explains:
We know how Barr is going to use his power on the ‘best practices’ panel: to break encryption. He’s said, over and over, that he thinks the ‘best practice’ is to always give law enforcement extraordinary access. So it’s easy to predict that Barr would use EARN IT to demand that providers of end-to-end encrypted communication give law enforcement officers a way to access users’ encrypted messages… These demands would put encryption providers like WhatsApp and Signal in an awful conundrum: either face the possibility of losing everything in a single lawsuit or knowingly undermine their own users’ security, making all of us more vulnerable to criminals.
Similarly, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) bashed the bill on Thursday, calling it a “Trojan horse.”
“This terrible legislation is a Trojan horse to give Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump the power to control online speech and require government access to every aspect of Americans’ lives. It is a desperate attempt to distract from the Justice Department’s failure to request the manpower, funding and resources to combat this scourge, despite clear direction from Congress more than a decade ago,” Wyden said in a statement on Thursday.
“This bill is a transparent and deeply cynical effort by a few well-connected corporations and the Trump administration to use child sexual abuse to their political advantage, the impact to free speech and the security and privacy of every single American be damned.”
Facebook also has weighed in, telling the Washington Post earlier this week that it was concerned the bill “may be used to roll back encryption… and may limit the ability of American companies to provide the private and secure services that people expect.”
On Friday, digital rights group Fight for the Future announced that 12,000 people have already signed a petition arguing against the EARN IT Act, and that petition will be delivered to members of Congress.
“The EARN IT Act will make children less safe, not more safe,” Evan Greer, the deputy director of Fight for the Future, said in a statement. “Encryption protects our airports, power plants, and the water treatment facilities that our children drink from. This bill sets the stage for backdoors in encryption that put everyone in danger. And it potentially opens the floodgates for widespread internet censorship in the process. This is one of the most misguided pieces of Internet legislation we’ve seen in a decade. We’re not going to let this happen.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to hold a hearing on the bill next week.
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