The EARN IT Act, first introduced in 2020, would cut back on decades-long protections for websites in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, allowing victims and their families to file lawsuits against companies that host child sexual abuse material. Photo by Eric Fischer/Wikimedia Commons
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (UPI) -- A bill intended to hold social media platforms accountable for posts that exploit children, but has been criticized for its potential to harm online privacy, has passed its first hurdle to getting a future vote in the Senate.
The EARN IT Act, first introduced in 2020, would cut back on decades-long protections for websites in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, allowing victims and their families to file lawsuits against companies that host child sexual abuse material.
"Our goal is to tell the social media companies [to] get involved and stop this crap, and if you don't take responsibility for what's on your platform, then Section 230 will not be there for you," said Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, sponsor of the bill, in a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting last week.
Under the bill, social media companies would not be able to cite the use of encryption technology as a defense against liability.
Critics of the measure say this provision would disincentivize platforms from using encryption to protect users and would lead to unnecessarily censoring content in many cases.
Opponents include civil rights groups and industry organizations. Digital rights advocacy group Fight for the Future has launched a petition against it that nearly 600,000 people have signed.
The Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved the EARN IT Act, despite some members expressing reservations. Lawmakers from both parties, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Democratic Sens. Chris Coons of Delaware, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Alex Padilla of California, voiced concerns about how the bill would impact online privacy.
"I'm a little concerned that the current language inadvertently mandates interactive computer services to do for the government what the government itself is prohibited from doing, which is engaging in ... the open-ended policing [and] the accessing and reporting of private and protected data," Lee said.
Numerous organizations that fight sexual violence and child exploitation support the bill. A press conference organized by Graham and co-sponsor Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Thursday morning featured representatives from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and anti-sexual assault organization RAINN.
Reading from a letter written by "Amy," a victim going by a pseudonym, who said images of her being sexually abused as a child still can be found on the Internet, RAINN federal affairs director Samantha Cadet said Internet service providers aren't doing anything to remove that material.
"We shouldn't have to force companies to do the right thing, but they pretend to care, then use CDA 230 to shut the courtroom doors on us," she read.
According the the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children's website, its CyberTipline has received more than 82 million reports of child sexual abuse material on the Internet since its 1998 inception.
RAINN Vice President Camille Cooper said that half of the 27,000 people who access its online hotline each month are children.
Stanford Internet Observatory research scholar Riana Pfefferkorn said amending Section 230 most likely will not improve child safety.
In an essay published Feb. 4, Pfefferkorn wrote that the bill would make child sexual abuse investigations more difficult by pushing predators to offshore websites, where the law wouldn't apply, as well as the dark web, where the material is more difficult to find.
A better solution, she said in an email, would be to provide "more resources for investigating reports of child sex abuse online, because as things stand, those charged with doing this important work are completely overwhelmed."
She also noted that time would be better spent addressing factors like poverty and housing instability that make children more vulnerable to abuse.