Child exploitation bill earns strong opposition from encryption advocates – Washington Examiner

A bipartisan group of 10 senators introduced legislation designed to combat online child pornography, but many privacy and cybersecurity advocates are vehemently opposed to the bill.

Many groups focused on privacy and cybersecurity fear the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act ( EARN IT) will lead to new restrictions on the use of encryption on websites and web-based messaging services.

The bill gives the attorney general broad authority to craft new standards for websites and online services to protect against child pornography. Attorney General William Barr has often called encryption a valuable tool for child pornographers and other criminals, and privacy and security groups fear he will quickly move to require encryption back doors in online services.

The bill undermines the privacy of every single American, stifles our ability to communicate freely online, and may jeopardize the very prosecutions it seeks to enable, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a March 9 letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Encrypted communications are vital to everyones privacy.

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal released a discussion draft of the bill earlier this year, and on March 5, they introduced the bipartisan EARN IT Act. At the same time, Google, Facebook, and four other online companies announced they were adopting new voluntary guidelines to fight child pornography.

The bill would create a new commission that develops best practices for preventing online child pornography, and it would enforce these standards by removing lawsuit protections from websites and online services that fail to implement them.

The EARN IT Act would require online services to certify the best practices developed by the commission. If not, they risk expanded legal liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects sites from lawsuits for user-generated content accused of defamation, breach of contract, and other violations.

Section 230 protects video-hosting sites like YouTube and social media providers such as Facebook and Twitter, but also any website that allows users to post comments, including many news sites.

Sponsors of the bill argue that its needed to crack down on the tens of millions of photos and videos posted online depicting child abuse.

The EARN IT Act will ensure tech companies are using best business practices to prevent child exploitation online, Graham said in a statement. For the first time, [websites] will have to earn blanket liability protection when it comes to protecting minors. Our goal is to do this in a balanced way that doesnt overly inhibit innovation, but forcibly deals with child exploitation.

After senators introduced the EARN IT Act, a trickle of criticism turned into a flood, however. The bill could turn voluntary reporting of child pornography by websites into a legal procedure that requires newly deputized websites to get court-ordered warrants before turning in users, the ACLU said in its March 9 letter.

Any evidence of [child abuse] obtained through investigations conducted to comply with the EARN IT Act, therefore, could be inadmissible in court if obtained without a warrant or in any other manner that does not comply with the Fourth Amendment, the ACLU wrote.

Critics also noted the value of encryption to domestic violence victims, to dissidents and journalists, to members of Congress, and to members of the U.S. military.

The 82nd Airborne Army division, deployed in the Middle East, uses encrypted applications Signal and Wickr to avoid surveillance by the Iranian government, the ACLU said. Encrypted services protect all of us from the prying eyes of hostile foreign governments and numerous other bad actors.

Another 25 groups, including FreedomWorks, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Wikimedia Foundation, also wrote a letter to Graham and Blumenthal, voicing strong opposition to the bill. The legislation raises First Amendment and Fourth Amendment concerns, and it could push criminals to underground communications services.

Eliminating or undermining encryption on some online platforms will make law enforcements job harder by simply pushing criminals to other communications options, the groups wrote. In other words, EARN IT would harm ordinary users who rely on encrypted messaging, but would not stop bad actors.

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Child exploitation bill earns strong opposition from encryption advocates - Washington Examiner

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