Leading Digital Rights Group Urges Action Against EARN IT Act

Leading Digital Rights Group Urges Action Against EARN IT Act

SAN FRANCISCO — Leading digital rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation has issued a statement urging immediate action to defeat the revived EARN IT Act, which privacy and sex workers' rights advocates have unanimously identified as a serious censorship threat.

As XBIZ reported this week, the bill was reintroduced Monday by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), who co-sponsored the original 2020 version of the bill in partnership with his South Carolina Republican colleague Lindsey Graham.

The bill, which purports to have as its goal to “protect victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation,” and which was announced by Blumenthal with a media blitz about “child protections,” is, in fact, a broad overhaul of Section 230 protections — known by online rights advocates as the First Amendment of the internet — to strip platforms of immunity for third-party uploaded content.

EARN IT will also open the way for politicians to define the legal categories of “pornography” and “pornographic website” as they or the lobbies that fund them please, which is a cherished goal of organizations that seek to reintroduce obscenity prosecutions for content now protected by Free Speech jurisprudence.

EFF called EARN IT “an incredibly unpopular bill from 2020 that was dropped in the face of overwhelming opposition.”

“Let’s be clear: the new EARN IT Act would pave the way for a massive new surveillance system, run by private companies, that would roll back some of the most important privacy and security features in technology used by people around the globe,” the organization's statement explained. “It’s a framework for private actors to scan every message sent online and report violations to law enforcement. And it might not stop there. The EARN IT Act could ensure that anything hosted online — backups, websites, cloud photos and more — is scanned.”

Using Fight Against 'Online Child Abuse' as a Trojan Horse for Censorship

According to EFF digital rights and First Amendment expert Joe Mullin’s analysis, EARN IT will empower “every U.S. state or territory to create sweeping new internet regulations, by stripping away the critical legal protections for websites and apps that currently prevent such a free-for-all — specifically, Section 230. The states will be allowed to pass whatever type of law they want to hold private companies liable, as long as they somehow relate their new rules to online child abuse.”

Another cause for concern among those fighting encroaching censorship proposals, writes Mullin, is EARN IT’s creation of “a 19-person federal commission, dominated by law enforcement agencies, which will lay out voluntary ‘best practices’ for attacking the problem of online child abuse. Regardless of whether state legislatures take their lead from that commission, or from the bill’s sponsors themselves, we know where the road will end. Online service providers, even the smallest ones, will be compelled to scan user content, with government-approved software like PhotoDNA.”

“Senators supporting the EARN IT Act say they need new tools to prosecute cases over child sexual abuse material, or CSAM,” the EFF statement continues. “But the methods proposed by EARN IT take aim at the security and privacy of everything hosted on the internet. Possessing, viewing or distributing CSAM is already written into law as an extremely serious crime, with a broad framework of existing laws seeking to eradicate it. Online service providers that have actual knowledge of an apparent or imminent violation of current laws around CSAM are required to make a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), a government entity which forwards reports to law enforcement agencies.”

In fact, Section 230 “doesn’t protect online services from prosecution under any federal criminal law at all.”

Blumenthal and Graham's Justifications for the Bill Full of 'Breathtaking Falsehoods'

EFF calls some of the the bill’s supporting materials “breathtaking falsehoods,” such as the statement that internet businesses are provided “blanket and unqualified immunity for sexual crimes against children.”

The EARN IT Act, EFF insists, “doesn’t target Big Tech. It targets every individual internet user, treating us all as potential criminals who deserve to have every single message, photograph and document scanned and checked against a government database. Since direct government surveillance would be blatantly unconstitutional and provoke public outrage, EARN IT uses tech companies from the largest ones to the very smallest ones as its tools.”

Ultimately, Blumenthal and Graham’s strategy is “to get private companies to do the dirty work of mass surveillance. This is the same tactic that the U.S. government used last year, when law enforcement agencies tried to convince Apple to subvert its own encryption and scan users’ photos for them; that plan has stalled out after overwhelming opposition. It’s the same strategy that U.K. law enforcement is using to convince the British public to give up its privacy, having spent public money on a laughable publicity campaign that demonizes companies that use encryption.”

To read the full statement by EFF and sign the petition, click here.

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