EARN IT Act Debut 'Earns' Plenty of Input

News that the Senate Judiciary Committee next week will be vetting a bill that could change the face of children's online content drew swift reaction, much of it negative.  

The committee has scheduled a hearing March 11 on The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies [EARN IT] Act." 

The bill, which was introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), would amend Sec. 230 to say the third-party liability immunity does not extend to child exploitation laws, meaning a Facebook or Twitter could be held liable for posts that illegally exploit children. 

The EARN IT bill would also establish a National Commission on Online Child Exploitation Prevention to establish best practices for preventing such exploitation. 

That did not sit well with lots of folks. 

"New America’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) strongly opposes the bill, which would not be effective in achieving this goal ['combating sexual exploitation of children online'], and would instead threaten both our constitutional rights and encryption, thereby also endangering the privacy and security of all internet users," said the group. 

Concerned that the bill would give the government a "back door" to encrypted services, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americas for Prosperity teamed up to take aim at the legislation.  

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“The EARN It Act threatens the safety of activists, domestic violence victims, and millions of others who rely on strong encryption every day," said ACLU senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane. "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. This bill is not the solution to the real and serious harms it claims to address.” 

Global tech trade association ITI followed suit. 

“Despite the legislation’s stated goals, we believe the EARN IT Act would fail to meaningfully tackle exploitative content beyond current tools and laws and contains fatal flaws that would undermine cybersecurity, privacy, and free speech," said ITI president Jason Oxman. "The tech industry will continue to work with governments, law enforcement, users, and communities, including with the sponsors of this bill, to ensure that tech products and services continue to create a safe environment online.” 

ITI joined earlier in the day with the Department of Justice and representatives from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom to support voluntary guidelines for protecting children online from sexual exploitation. 

On the other side was the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. "Right now, Big Tech has no incentive to prevent predators from grooming, recruiting, and trafficking children online and as a result countless children have fallen victim to child abusers on platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok," said NCSE president Patrick A. Trueman. "EARN IT gives us these missing incentives by making the current gift of immunity under the Communications Decency Act Section 230 conditional. To keep immunity, social media platforms will have to demonstrate they are actively working to prevent online sexual exploitation of minors and child sexual abuse material (CSAM)."

"While balancing the needs of national and individual security in today’s fragile cybersecurity landscape is challenging, this bill creates problems rather than offering a solution," said Heather West, head of Americas policy, for Mozilla.

"The law enforcement community has made it clear this law is another attempt to weaken the encryption that is the bedrock of digital security. Encryption ensures our information — from our sensitive financial and medical details to emails and text messages — is protected. Without it, the world is a far more dangerous place. 

"While well-intentioned, the EARN IT Act would cause great harm to the open internet and put everyday Americans at greater risk. We look forward to working with Sens. Graham and Blumenthal and their respective committees to find better ideas to create a safer and more secure internet for everyone."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.