Anti-exploitation bill advances in Senate despite free speech concerns

The Verge

In a markup hearing on Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee advanced a controversial new bill targeting Section 230 protections for content involving online sexual exploitation. In a majority vote, the EARN IT Act was favorably referred for a floor vote, despite vigorous objections from human rights and privacy groups.

Among other provisions, the bill would strip companies of immunity for the knowing transmission of child sexual abuse imagery (CSAM) on their platforms. Currently, companies are protected from civil cases by Section 230.

Human rights groups have compared the bill to FOSTA — an anti-sex trafficking bill passed into law in 2018 — saying EARN IT will restrict online speech while doing little to address the underlying problems. In a group letter to the committee, more than 60 human rights organizations (including the EFF and ACLU) called on the committee to abandon the effort.

“By opening providers up to significantly expanded liability, the bill would make it far riskier for platforms to host user-generated content,” the letter reads.

Critics also worry that the bill could open the door to a de facto ban on end-to-end encryption. The current version of EARN IT says encryption shall not “serve as an independent basis for liability of a provider,” but it can still be taken into account when courts consider whether a company has taken reasonable efforts to root out exploitation on its networks.

Within the committee, lawmakers characterized the bill differently. Sen Blumenthal (D-CT), a lead sponsor of the measure, described the bill as “a narrow carveout to section 230” and dismissed concerns over encryption as “a red herring.” Blumenthal also detailed separate incidents in which victims saw non-consensual pornography (also called “revenge porn”) shared on Twitter and Reddit respectively and faced few options without involving federal law enforcement.

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