The EARN IT Bill: A Wolf in Sheeps Clothing?

Senator Lindsey Graham. Photo: Gage Skidmore,

On March 5, Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill entitled Eliminating Abuse or Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, known as EARN IT. As a news story, it is far overshadowed by the coronavirus epidemic, but its consequences could far outlive it.

This bill is targeted at the tech industry, holding companies like Google and Facebook liable for the actions of their users who communicate through their services. Ostensibly, EARN IT is a tool to reduce digital child sexual exploitation. In fact, it is supported by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, as well as various other human rights organizations.

Their support seems to cede the moral high ground to EARN IT. According to Feinstein, “Our bill would allow individuals to sue tech companies that don’t take proper steps to prevent online child exploitation, and it’s an important step to protect the most vulnerable among us.”

But critics point out that, not unlike many beneficial medicines, this bill has adverse side effects. In the case of EARN IT, these unwelcome consequences could ultimately lead to government interference in the lives of everyone.

How? The answer lies in a technological capability known as encryption. Encryption is the technical shuffling of data that allows only the sender and receiver of a message to access the content. Encryption makes data unreadable by hackers, internet service providers, and government agencies.

Current telecommunication laws do not hold companies responsible for the content that their users post. EARN IT intends to change that. By being threatened with lawsuits for allowing unsupervised communication between users, tech companies would essentially be forced to scan and filter content for illegal activities before it is uploaded.

If the activities could be limited to child exploitation, there might be less concern, but the ambiguity of “illegal activities” has many lawmakers concerned. For example, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) has described the bill as a Trojan horse “to give Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump the power to control online speech and require government access to every aspect of Americans’ lives.”

Wyden’s “Trojan horse” refers to the Trojan War in Greek mythology. Following a 10-year siege, Greek forces withdraw from Troy but remain nearby, leaving a huge sculpture of a horse outside the Trojan gates. When the Trojans bring the horse inside, Greek warriors hidden within come out and open the gates to the Greeks, who destroy Troy. The Trojan horse, then refers to something that looks like a gift but is actually an enemy tactic in disguise.

Sen. Blumenthal, a co-sponsor of EARN IT, counters by saying, “The bill says nothing about encryption.” Although the bill does not explicitly target encryption, EARN IT would give government agencies access to messaging apps that are encrypted end-to-end (sender to receiver). These messaging apps include Mark Zuckerberg’s WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Apple’s iMessage.

Opponents of the bill argue that under the guise of helping children EARN IT could eventually erode the individual citizen’s privacy, since all messaging would be subject to inspection–Big Brother-style–by authorities ranging from tech company employees to the highest political powers in the land.

Critics urge all Americans to pay attention to this bill as it winds its way through Congress since the loss of their personal freedom might be riding on it.

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