EARN IT Act proposed in Congress

The Senate Judiciary Committee has proposed the EARN IT Act of 2020, short for Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, South Carolina) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D, Connecticut). This new piece of legislation creates a commission that will establish practices to combat online child sexual abuse and remove sections from previous acts like the Communications Decency Act that protect technology companies if they choose not to comply.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act states that “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” (47 U.S.C. § 230). This means that large technology companies are not responsible for the content that users create or store on their platform. The EARN IT Act would make it so that companies would have to earn these protections against what users publish, as opposed to being granted them automatically. Section 230 protections would be earned through companies complying with a list of practices such as reporting material that contains child pornography and sexual abuse.

The EARN IT Act would create a 19-person commission tasked with creating practices for corporations to follow in order to reduce instances of sexual abuse. Upon creation of these practices, the commission must submit their list to the attorney general, the secretary of homeland security, and the chairman of the Federal Trade Commission for final approval. Then, the practices must be approved and enacted by Congress.

However, by making companies screen their users’ messages and profiles for abusive material, the EARN IT Act puts user privacy in jeopardy. The main concern is that this act will put an end to encryption. Currently, the contents of the message people send and receive are encrypted, meaning that the data is scrambled and cannot be read by a third party. The data is only unscrambled upon arrival at the recipient’s device.

While the act does not explicitly say anything about getting rid of encryption, it is not possible to examine the messages sent by individuals without doing away with encryption. Either the user retains their privacy through use of encryption, or encryption is not used, and the government, as well as any third parties that intercept your data, will be able to scan and view its contents. 

  The EARN IT Act attempts to solve a difficult problem that plagues our society today. While its intentions are good, the EARN IT Act needs to take into account that secure online services are still an important part of our right to privacy. Although it is meant to make businesses play their part in tackling child sexual abuse, it also affects individuals who aren’t using online services for nefarious purposes.

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