For folks all over, COVID-19 has taken over their lives. From constant posts on social media to governments ordering isolation, it is difficult to hear about much else. Although it seems like nothing in the world is happening except for the COVID-19 pandemic, that is not the case. Here are a few of the top developing stories you may not have heard about during this crisis.
On March 5, 2020, the EARN IT Act (S. 3398), co-sponsored by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), was introduced to the Senate. While it was created under the premise of combatting the exploitation of children online, this bill actually slashes protections that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has.
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act makes providers and users of interactive computer services, such as Facebook, Instagram, and Google, immune to liability for the posts and actions of their users on the platform. Basically, if one person uses a social media forum to facilitate something illegal, only that person can be prosecuted for it, not the entire platform.
The EARN IT Act removes these protections that automatically give companies immunity and will make them “earn” the protection by showing that they are following recommendations for combating child sexual exploitation – hence the name of the bill.
The reason this bill is concerning is because of its implications when it comes to encryption and privacy for everyone who chooses to use public platforms. If signed into law, the EARN IT Act would create a way for law enforcement officials, privacy specialists, cryptographers, and others who have expertise in finding predators to decide what online platforms need to do in order to identify and reduce child predation on their platforms and then require them to follow through. The precautions proposed are likely to include processes such as preemptive content scanning to find abusive media and surveillance of communication methods to hunt for predators who could be grooming potential victims to be exploited.
At first glance, these precautions sound like a good idea, until it’s made clear that the EARN IT Act is a danger to encryption. If signed into law the bill may cause companies that offer end-to-end encryption to not have their immunity guaranteed; placing them in the position of either having to accept that they will be liable, undermine the protection of encryption by creating a backdoor for law enforcement access, or remove end-to-end encryption entirely. Why this is an issue is best outlined by Facebook spokesman Thomas Richards, “We share the EARN IT Act sponsors’ commitment to child safety and have made keeping children safe online a top priority by developing and deploying technology to thwart the sharing of child abuse material. We’re concerned the EARN IT Act may be used to roll back encryption, which protects everyone’s safety from hackers and criminals and may limit the ability of American companies to provide the private and secure services that people expect.”
This bill could also cause issues for organizations like Black Lives Matter, who have had past issues with the U.S. Government surveilling their work or movements of their activists, as the government would be able to closely monitor their function or possibly even stifle it if given enough leeway.
At the moment, the bill’s progress is frozen due to COVID-19 but keeping the discussion about the importance of privacy as opposed to the importance of thwarting predators is an important one to keep alive.
As if 2020’s issues couldn’t get any more strangely biblical, East Africa has been plagued by locusts since the end of 2019, and it has only gotten worse in 2020. In Kenya, a single swarm occupied airspace that was over triple the size of New York City. Swarms have also started to form in India, Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. As the issue has progressed, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has projected that the number of locusts could grow by four hundred times by June if the issue is ignored.
When asked by New York Magazine about how a locust outbreak would end without intervention from people, FAO senior locust-forecasting officer Keith Cressman explained, “There would have to be a failure of the seasonal rains — that’s usually how mother nature helps to bring these things under control. Sometimes the winds will push locusts into areas they just don’t want to be in. For instance, if they got pushed further into the Democratic Republic of the Congo or into cold areas where they would die or areas that are very tropical where they would pick up a lot of pathogens and die.” In response to this issue, the FAO has created a map that predicts the progression of the swarms and have appealed to receive $138 million USD from member countries of the UN and other intergovernmental organizations to fund emergency efforts to handle the crisis. As of the end of February, it had received only $52 million.
On a lighter note, Tabasco, Mexico has become the first community to be constructed entirely of 3D printed homes. This project is the result of a joint effort between American non-profit New Story, Mexican nonprofit ECHALE, and tech company ICON to combat homelessness. According to Brett Hagler, New Story’s co-founder and CEO, the groups hire local workers for necessary labor. The automation of the 3D technology makes the process of building the homes faster, but laborers are still necessary to attach the doors and roofs and to install plumbing.
Each home has a kitchen, a bathroom, a living room, and two bedrooms. They also are able to withstand hurricanes and are seismic-approved in case of an earthquake. The reason these precautions were taken was that Tabasco is in a seismic zone that’s prone to flooding, and the team behind the project wanted to ensure that the houses would be able to be passed down in the families that will be moving in. Thanks to the speed and cost-effectiveness of Vulcan II, the printer that creates the homes, Jason Ballard, CEO of ICON, believes that 3D printing will revolutionize the housing industry: “We think part of what 3D printing allows us to do is to deliver a much higher-quality product to the housing market at a speed and price that’s typically not available for people in low-income housing. It is a house that anyone would be proud to live in.” The project is anticipating the completion of 50 homes by the end of 2020.
Mass media has been bombarding anyone who owns an electronic device with updates and stories about COVID-19. Although these notifications are incredibly important for maintaining public safety, it may be helpful for people to take a mental break from the pandemic by examining other, unrelated, yet very important stories like these. As the outbreak continues, it may be even more difficult to hear about anything but COVID-19. That said, it never hurts to remain informed and engaged beyond the COVID-19 outbreak.
Sadie Rose Honchock is a high school junior from New Orleans, Louisiana. When she isn’t writing for Next Gen Politics, she’s the Internal Communications Director for One Up Action, a researcher for The Institute for Civic Organizing, and the Public Relations & Marketing Director for Celebrating Differences.