A draft of a recently leaked bill has many across the internet worried about their online privacy when it relates to government surveillance. The “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act” or EARN IT was written by Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal, a bi-partisan effort, with the intent to prevent online abuse and exploitation of children. In order to achieve this, the bill seeks to establish a committee of fifteen members including The Attorney General, The Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Chairman of the FTC. This committee would be responsible for recommending “best practices regarding the prevention of online child exploitation content”.
So far, this seems reasonable. After all, who wouldn’t get behind a bill that protects children from exploitation. The issue is that the best practices that the committee publishes must only have the support of the committee members and ten other members of congress. Other than that it seems that any “best practice” can be submitted to the Attorney General, who then has the power to “modify if necessary, the recommended best practices” and publish the final version.
Even this would not be a huge cause for concern if these practices were what they sounded like, best recommendations for protecting minors. However these best practices are not recommendations, rather they are seemingly mandatory practices that hold legal weight behind them. Companies that provide online services would be required to comply with these practices within a year of their publication and re-asses their compliance every year after. If they do not and are accused of hosting unlawful and exploitative material in regards to children, the company will be stripped of their section 230 protections. This would open up a floodgate of potential lawsuits that if acted upon, would run many online businesses into the ground.
While this bill is not blatantly attacking on online privacy, it does give an absurd amount of power to the Attorney General and fourteen other members of congress who would now have the power to regulate how much of the internet is run. The current Attorney General, William Barr, has advocated for backdoors to be built into encryption schemes for government use frequently. Many fear that if this bill is passed, he and others will use their new legal powers to force cryptography providers to build these backdoors and essentially give the government access to all of our online communication. Not only does this mean that cryptography would be useless against governing bodies, it also means that it would be severely weakened against bad actors as a backdoor that can only be used by the government simply cannot exist.
It seems as though this bill would not really have any effect on how online child exploitation is prosecuted in terms of those who actually commit the crimes; rather it targets online companies and services unfairly.
While the bill hasn’t been introduced formally, it has caused major uproar from online communities since its leak and it is easy to see why. It gives too much power over something that effects all of us daily to much too few. At best it can be used to protect children and take down exploitative websites, at worst it undermines the security and privacy of all of our online activities and one person essentially gets to decide which end of the spectrum the bill’s practice would fall on. Given the government’s track record of mass online surveillance we should be reluctant to give them more power over our communications.
Written by Grayson Hassell
The bill can be read in its entirety here.
You can take action against the bill here.
Read about the mentioned section 230 protections here.