Bipartisan Push to Curb Internet Exploitation of Children Renewed in House, Senate
WASHINGTON — A bipartisan effort to curb the sexual exploitation of children on the internet promises to reignite the debate over whether and how to limit protections currently extended to technology and media companies.
The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, reintroduced Wednesday in the House by Reps. Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas, and Ann Wagner, R-Mo., calls for the creation of a government commission that would establish “best practices” for the detection and reporting of child exploitation materials on the internet.
Internet services would then be required to follow these practices or risk the removal of protections afforded them under Section 230 of the United States Communications Decency Act.
A bipartisan companion bill has also been reintroduced in the Senate by Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Written in the 1990s, Section 230 provides immunity for website platforms being sued over user-generated content.
“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,” it says.
The section also further provides “Good Samaritan” protection from civil liability for operators of interactive computer services in the removal or moderation of third-party material they deem obscene or offensive, even of constitutionally protected speech.
The EARN IT Act was originally introduced in March 2020, with Sens. Graham and Blumenthal being among its original sponsors. The original version limited the broad protection afforded under Section 230 by adding special conditions for material that runs afoul of child sexual abuse laws.
It also, for a time, gave the commission broad enforcement powers, including the ability to remove Section 230 protections. Eventually, in order to advance the bill, Graham amended the original proposal to remove the commission’s legal authority.
That was enough to secure a unanimous vote out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but the bill languished in the House and went nowhere.
Prior to its death in the House, opponents of the bill, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Electronic Frontier Foundation and Human Rights Watch complained that, among the “best practices” the commission was charged with imposing, was the inclusion of a “backdoor” for law enforcement into any encryption used on a website.
Eventually, the opponents argued, companies would be coerced to abandon strong encryption and privacy protections for users.
The text of the just-reintroduced bill closely tracks that of the bill introduced two years ago. Among the minor changes in it is in the size of the commission — originally envisioned as a 15-member panel, it will now have 19.
Further, it described the purpose of the commission to “develop recommended best practices that providers of interactive computer services may choose to implement to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children, including the enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse of children and the proliferation of online child sexual abuse material.”
In a press release the lawmakers say the bill will “enable online companies to be held civilly liable and subject to state prosecution if they violate child sexual abuse laws; enhance reporting to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children CyberTipline; and modernize language to ensure these crimes are referred to as child sexual abuse, rather than child pornography.”
The Act directs the commission to submit its list of recommended best practices to the attorney general within 18 months of its formation.
“There is nothing more horrific than the sexual abuse and exploitation of children,” Wagner said in a written statement. “Predators are targeting young girls and boys in our community and across the country at unprecedented rates, and explicit images and videos of these underage children are bought, sold, and distributed over the internet every day.
“I will not stand idly by while websites that facilitate this criminal behavior evade accountability,” Wagner continued. “The EARN IT Act, legislation that will give survivors and law enforcement the ability to take legal action against websites that sell or distribute these illegal images and videos. Victims of online child sexual abuse and exploitation endure unfathomable trauma.
“It is long past time for Congress to support these survivors and to confront the websites monetizing child abuse,” she concluded.
“As elected officials, there is no greater responsibility than making sure that we are keeping our children safe,” Garcia said in a written statement. “[The EARN IT Act] will ensure that we are taking the necessary precautions to protect our children by preventing and responding to online child sexual abuse material.
“We must use the full force of the law to hold those accountable that would take advantage of our children or violate child sexual abuse laws,” she said.
Not surprisingly, the reintroduction of the EARN IT Act this week inspired a firestorm of commentary on Twitter and other social media platforms.
The Center for Democracy & Technology, a technology user’s rights group based in Washington, D.C., was among the groups that said not only will the Act fail to meet its objectives, it will result in online censorship disproportionately impacting marginalized communities and it will jeopardize access to encrypted services.
“We cannot successfully combat the spread of child sexual abuse material on the internet by making it harder for children and adults to access information and more dangerous for everyone to communicate online,” said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the organization.
“The EARN IT Act paints a target on the backs of providers who offer end-to-end encrypted services,” Givens continued. “Internet users rely on encrypted services to communicate safely online. Without encryption, activists planning a march, journalists communicating with sources, patients sending messages to health professionals and even children talking with their parents would face increased risk that their private and sensitive communications will be exposed. By creating a massive disincentive for providers to offer encrypted services, the EARN IT Act will make us all less safe.”
Evan Greer, director of Fight for the Future, a digital rights group which last year organized a viral online campaign against the EARN IT Act, said on Twitter, “The EARN IT Act is one of the most poorly conceived and dangerous pieces of Internet legislation I have seen in my entire career, and that’s saying a lot.”
But Blumenthal also took to Twitter, spelling out his beliefs in a four-part thread.
“The EARN IT Act is very simply about whether tech companies should be held responsible for their complicity in the sexual abuse and exploitation of children when they refuse to report or remove images of these crimes hosted on their platforms,” Blumenthal wrote.
“The internet is infested with stomach-churning images of children who have been brutally assaulted and exploited, and who are haunted by a lifetime of pain after these photographs and videos are circulated online,” he continued.
“Tech companies have long had ready access to low-cost, or even free tools to combat the scourge of child sexual abuse material, but have failed to act,” Blumenthal said. “Millions of these horrifying images go unidentified and unreported by the tech platforms that host them because there are so few consequences when these companies look the other way. That ends with the EARN IT Act.”