Advocacy groups oppose Senate encryption bill over privacy protection concerns News
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Advocacy groups oppose Senate encryption bill over privacy protection concerns

US Senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal on Monday reintroduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, or EARN IT Act. The Act, heavily opposed in its initial 2020 run, is aimed at stripping big tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s of legal protection against online child sexual abuse material.

Lawmakers including Senator Susan Collins and Representative Sylvia Garcia have offered their support for the bill’s reintroduction, claiming it will facilitate better practices in the prevention and response to child abuse and enable online companies to be held civilly liable and subject to state prosecution if they violate child sexual abuse law. Although the bill has extensive bipartisan support, tech industry and internet rights advocates argue the bill will only weaken civilian privacy protections while further marginalizing at-risk communities. 

After unanimously passing the Senate Judiciary Committee, the bill stalled out in July of 2020, partially due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As the bill stands in its current amended state, is a reform on Section 230 of Title 47 of the United States Code. Section 230 provides immunity for website platforms with respect to third-party content. It allows platforms to be held liable solely for violations under federal criminal law, in essence protecting them from a slew of other lawsuits that can be brought at the state level. The EARN IT Act looks to remove this immunity from state and federal criminal laws, while also creating a new commission to oversee a set of “best practices” for companies to abide by related to online child sexual exploitation.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the bill’s co-sponsors said:

“There are tens of millions of photos and videos circulating throughout the internet, showing the most heinous acts of sexual abuse and torture of children…The EARN IT Act removes Section 230 blanket liability protection from service providers in the area of child sexual abuse material on their sites. The days of children being exploited on the internet and their families being unable to do anything about it are coming to an end.”

Supporters of the bill argue that this will be a step in the right direction for enforcing guidelines on companies engaged in illegal conduct or simply on companies that are not doing enough in terms of defense. However, those against the bill contend that it would cause websites to relax their encryption measures, allowing other users to freely access consumer data and private messages. This would not only put private users at risk of privacy violations, but would damage the technological safe harbors put in place for hospitals, schools, and airports.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled the bill for review this week.