The Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technology (“EARN IT”) Act is a proposed bill that is designed to permit government agencies scan online messages and prevent child sexual exploitations. It is meant to force websites remove child abuse images from their platforms. The advocates argue it is necessary to allow the government evaluate online communications for potential violations. They argue that websites should be held accountable for user violations. This law seems to be against encryption which is used to obscure content from the unintended recipient. Encryption technology has been used to protect online privacy by scrambling messages through special algorithms. It can only be deciphered by the intended recipient who has access to the private key. Encryption can be used to securely communicate on the internet but it can also be used for nefarious reasons. That said, the EARN IT Act does not use the term “encryption” in its provisions. The supporting legislators have claimed the proposed statute is not designed to outlaw encryption. Also, it would require websites to adhere to certain best practices that will be implemented by the Attorney General’s Office by selecting a group of law enforcement agents who would impose them.
The EARN IT Act could reduce the protections granted under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (“CDA”) which provides a certain level of immunity for online service providers. Now, the immunity is not absolute but it is not very far from it. It protects online service providers (a/k/a “interactive computer service providers”) from user violations. For example, if the user engages in conduct that constitutes invasion of privacy of another person, the website would be shielded from legal liability. So, the victim could not file a lawsuit against the website for the user’s violations. However, the following three exceptions apply: (1) federal criminal activity and obscene material; (2) intellectual property violations; and (3) sex trafficking. In fact, 47 U.S.C. § 230(e)(1) prohibits obscene material and sexual exploitation of children. Moreover, 47 U.S.C. § 223 prohibits the transmission of lewd, lascivious, filthy, or indecent messages to a person under the age of eighteen. The CDA prohibits online service providers from sexual exploitation of minors, sex trafficking, or promotion of prostitution in jurisdictions where it is illegal. In other words, interactive computer service providers cannot facilitate these activities on their platforms. In Reno v. ACLU, the Supreme Court evaluated the CDA and its relevant provisions. It found that the CDA criminalized protected speech – e.g., sexually explicit speech – and unprotected obscenity.
The EARN IT Act has been compared to the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (“FOSTA”) and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (“SESTA”) which were passed to fight against online sex trafficking by making websites criminally liable for user content. These federal statutes caused several websites, including, but not limited to, Craigslist and Backpage to remove pages or be completely shut down. So naturally, critics have argued that they promoted online speech censorship and prevented people who engaged in consensual sex work. Yet, if the proposed bill passes legislation, it could open the floodgates for lawsuits against technology companies.
The opposition claims that passing the federal law would threaten the use of encryption which can be used to protect the message’s content from unauthorized access. They claim that it would require technology companies to actively scan messages and look for violations. The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that it would end user privacy and require technology companies to rewrite software programs to grant law enforcement agencies access to those private messages. The Attorney General’s Office has supported the bypassing of encryption to allow law enforcement agencies to gain control over internet communications.
It’s important to know your legal rights and responsibilities when it comes to free speech and online privacy laws. Please contact our law firm to speak with an internet and technology attorney at your earliest convenience.