The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or “EARN IT Act,” was proposed by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham and Senator Richard Blumenthal in March of 2020. The legislation is meant to protect children from the dangers of the internet and to ensure their right to access and use online spaces. On the surface, it seems like a much-needed action by the federal government. In reality, however, the act is a thinly-veiled attempt to restrict civil rights, all while not protecting our children from online predators as it claims to do.
The Act would allow the government to regulate how companies censor and manage user content based on broad categories, essentially forcing companies to enforce user censorship or potentially face charges. In addition, while the bill does not explicitly mention “encryption,” it does give the government the power to pressure companies to decrypt encrypted content such as private messages with threats of lawsuits framing encryption as a means of spreading child sexual abuse material (CSAM).
Encryption is when data is scrambled and codified to ensure that only authorized persons, such as the end-user or customer, can access and understand that information. The Department of Justice (DOJ) has been a vocal opponent of encryption for decades, even stating on their website that “because of warrant-proof encryption, the government often cannot obtain the electronic evidence and intelligence necessary to investigate and prosecute threats to public safety and national security, even with a warrant or court order.” The DOJ uses this language to help them convince Americans that giving up their privacy is simply a small sacrifice for the greater good. However, what the DOJ fails to mention is that when making warrant-based encryption illegal, the same backdoors that law enforcement and the government use to access that encrypted information can also be used by criminals. Warrant-based encryption is an extremely secure form of encryption that prevents the government and law enforcement from being able to decipher encrypted material even with a warrant. What’s even more concerning is that the EARN It Act doesn’t just wage war on warrant-based encryption, but on encryption as a whole. Attorney General William Barr is a strong proponent of the EARN It Act, and not only has he been an opponent of encryption for years, but he also has a history of surveilling Americans. During his stint as Attorney General during the Bush Administration from 1991 to 1992, he spearheaded a mass surveillance program that took billions of records of almost all international phone calls made by innocent Americans without oversight from Congress and without conducting a review of its legality. This occurred even with privacy protections in place. If the EARN IT Act were passed, it would essentially place private information in the government’s lap with even fewer provisions protecting us than in the past.
In addition, the Act fails to acknowledge that in order to successfully rid the internet of CSAM, each of the components that prevent the spread of CSAM– “prevention, identification, reporting and removal of content, enforcement, and protection of child victims” — must be targeted, which requires different approaches, legislation, and measures. The EARN IT Act doesn’t acknowledge these components, rather it solely relies on tech companies to bear the brunt of the work.
In reality, to successfully combat CSAM, multiple actions must be taken by the local and federal government. For example, an IOFA (International Organization for Adolescence) report found that many child welfare professionals indicated they had “encountered trafficked children or youth previously in their work, but because they did not know it at the time, the children slipped through the cracks and were never identified as trafficking victims.” An important step in preventing this is to pass legislation that requires Child Welfare Services, such as Child Protective Services (CPS), to provide additional training to first responders allowing them to correctly identify domestic/sexual abuse against minors. Another important step is for the U.S government to re-allocate money to increase funding and special programs for domestic abuse victims.
Legislation and actions like this, which equally focus on all components, are the best way to combat the spread of CSAM. They create change that addresses the true sources of the problem without restricting constitutional rights and forcing Americans to choose between privacy and child safety. While it is important to create a safer online environment for children and prevent the spread of CSAM, the EARN IT Act is clearly not the solution.
Kaurwaki Babu is a senior at NCSSM, a boarding school in North Carolina. From a young age, she’s had a passion for political issues ranging from gun control to climate change. By taking part in several protests, joining Speech and Debate, and participating in the U.S. Senate Page Program, she has found ways to enter the world of political discourse through social justice and policy change. She’s part of the leadership committee at Discovery Place Science, a science museum in Charlotte, NC, where she advocates for environmental consciousness and helps high schoolers get actively involved in environmental justice. She’s excited to write for NGP and become more involved in fostering political discourse among youth!