Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"EARN IT" Bill In Congress Could Mean Bad News For Internet Freedom

By Bixyl Shuftan

There's another Internet bill in Congress that could have potentially dire consequences for privacy expectations people online take for granted. Introduced "to establish a National Commission on Online Child Exploitation Prevention, and for other purposes," the "Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of  Interactive Technologies" Act, or EARN IT, "opens the door for the government to require new measures to screen users’ speech and even backdoors to read your private communications."

According to an article in Bloomberg, "The bipartisan measure, ... would affect a wide range of social media companies, cloud service providers, email and text platforms and other technology services. It could put Facebook in the government’s crosshairs for its plans to encrypt all of its messaging apps and undercut Apple’s refusal to create back doors into its devices and services." The article would go on to say, "The Justice Department has tentatively scheduled a Feb. 19 meeting on the future of the immunity known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act ... The provision protects platforms from responsibility for content posted by third parties. Although the measure doesn’t directly mention encryption, it would require that companies work with law enforcement to identify, remove, report and preserve evidence related to child exploitation -- which critics said would be impossible to do for services such as WhatsApp that are encrypted from end-to-end."

Companies would have to "certify that they are following the best practices set by the 15-member commission." If they don't to its satisfaction, "they would lose the legal immunity they currently enjoy under Section 230 relating to child exploitation and abuse laws. That would open the door to lawsuits for 'reckless' violations of those laws ..."

Supporters of the bill insist the ability to read encrypted messages is necessary, saying efforts to protect encryption, “will make it harder to detect -- and stop -- child abuse and similar crimes." Elliot Harmon of the Electronic Frontier Foundation retorted that if the bill became law, "the Attorney General could unilaterally dictate how online platforms and services must operate. If those companies don’t follow the Attorney General’s rules, they could be on the hook for millions of dollars in civil damages and even state criminal penalties. ... It opens the door for the government to require new measures to screen users’ speech and even backdoors to read your private communications.

"EARN IT undermines Section 230, the most important law protecting free speech online. Section 230 enforces the common-sense principle that if you say something illegal online, you should be the one held responsible, not the website or platform where you said it. Section 230 has played a crucial role in creating the modern Internet. Without it, social media as we know it today wouldn’t exist, and neither would the Internet Archive, Wikimedia, and many other essential educational and community resources. And it doesn’t just protect tech platforms either: if you’ve ever forwarded an email, thank Section 230 that you could do that without inviting legal risk on yourself." Harmon would call the bill an attack on Internet Security, entrepreneur innovation, and just plain unnecessary.

Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerburg has stated his company will continue to be “standing up for encryption, against those who say that privacy mostly helps bad people.” Senator Ron Wyden has openly spoken in protest about the bill, "a tired, debunked plan to blow a hole in one of the most important security features protecting digital lives of the American people."

The website fightforthefuture.org/ has a petition calling on Congress to reject the bill. As of the writing of this article, it has over 8660 of the 12,800 signatures it set as a goal.

The Justice Department is currently led by Attorney General William Barr, whom lately has been the target of calls to resign for interfering with the trial of an ally of President Trump.

Sources: Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Reuters, Bloomberg, Ron Wyden

Bixyl Shuftan

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