A new bill would force tech companies to address online child sexual exploitation The EARN IT Act addresses online sexual abuse of children
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On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing regarding the EARN IT Act, which seeks to hold tech giants like Facebook accountable for images and videos of children being sexually abused shared across their platforms.

Anice Whatley Sykes is committed to keeping her 11-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son away from social media as long as she can. “At least until they’re old enough to set up their own accounts,” the mom of two in Pittsburgh told COURIER. Like many parents, Whatley Sykes believes children are exceptionally vulnerable when online.

Whatley Sykes’ fears are warranted. According to a study released last week by the nonprofit investigative group Tech Transparency Project (TTP), Facebook has failed to catch over 300 cases of child exploitation on its platform during the past six years. 

Between January 2013 and December 2019, TTP found 366 cases of sexual exploitation of minors on Facebook. Of these cases, only 9% were investigated because the company properly alerted authorities; the others were initiated by law enforcement. 

One case involved a 37-year-old Kentucky man who persuaded a 14-year-old girl to send him sexually explicit photos and videos of herself through Facebook Messenger. Law enforcement later determined he had victimized several children the same way, and was later charged in 2016 with 25 counts of production of child pornography, one count of receiving child pornography, and one count of sex trafficking of children.

In an effort to address similar cases of child sexual exploitation, lawmakers have proposed new legislation that aims to combat the spread of sexual abuse images on social media. On Wednesday, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing regarding the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT) Act, a bipartisan bill introduced last week that seeks to hold tech giants like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Google accountable for the millions of images and videos of children being sexually abused shared across their platforms.

In 2019, nearly 70 million explicit images and videos involving minors were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC); the bulk of those images and videos were found by Facebook on its Messenger platform. 

The EARN IT Act is sponsored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). If passed, it would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to require companies take certain steps related to curbing child sexual abuse material in order to  “earn” the current liability protections that are in place.

It would also create a 19-member commission consisting of representatives from law enforcement, the tech industry, and child advocates to create recommendations of best practices. These practices, like how to spot illegal material and verifying users’ ages, would be subject to approval by the Justice Department, Congress, and even the president.

“The EARN IT Act doesn’t make me want to immediately set up profiles for my kids, but it does make me feel a little more secure knowing that outlets like Facebook will be held more accountable for the safety of my children,” Whatley Sykes said.

TTP executive director Daniel Stevens told The Guardian that Facebook may not be doing everything in its power to enforce its own community standards regarding child sexual exploitation. “The data shows Facebook is not doing as much as it should to address this very serious problem affecting many lives in this country,” he said.

What is clear, however, is that Facebook did not alert authorities in the vast majority of child exploitation cases that were discovered by law enforcement, according to TTP’s analysis. 

Based on the information from the Justice Department Offices, TTP was able to identify 385 examples from criminal cases where suspects used Facebook for child exploitation. They found that nearly half of these examples involved creating, distributing, or obtaining child sexual abuse images, and another 41% involved perpetrators communicating with, grooming, or actively recruiting children for sexual abuse. And these are just the cases reported to law enforcement.

In 2019, nearly 70 million explicit images and videos involving minors were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children

The EARN IT Act has received endorsements from more than 70 groups, including many victim’s rights advocacy organizations, such as the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), Rights4Girls, and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation. 

In a letter of support shared last week, NCMEC wrote that it supports the legislation because it offers stakeholders “a roadmap to adopt specific, consistent best practices developed by industry and subject matter experts to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children. Currently, there is no incentive for [electronic service providers] to utilize consistent best practices across all of their platforms and, as a result, children are sexually exploited and endangered online by predators who circulate images of their sexual abuse across the internet and around the world.”

Critics of the bill, however, argue that the EARN IT Act threatens encryption, which makes sensitive data more secure and less likely to be intercepted by anyone without authorization to view it. Methods of encryption are typically used to protect sensitive electronic data, like email messages, files, folders, and entire drives.

While encryption can make it difficult to identify online predators, undermining encryption can allow bad actors—such as hackers, criminals, and authoritarian governments—to access private information.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity jointly opposed the bill, warning that such legislation could be used to outlaw encryption. 

“The EARN IT Act threatens the safety of activists, domestic violence victims, and millions of others who rely on strong encryption every day. Because of the safety and security encryption provides, Congress has repeatedly rejected legislation that would create an encryption backdoor,” ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane says in a statement. “This legislation would empower an unelected commission to effectively mandate what Congress has time and again decided against, while also jeopardizing free expression on the Internet in the process. This bill is not the solution to the real and serious harms it claims to address.”

Whatley Sykes, for her part, isn’t sure how she feels about the bill in its entirety, given that it could have a direct impact on the security of encryption. “Are we putting our children at more risk, by making it easier for hackers to access our information?” 

For now, she plans on keeping her children safe from the risk of online child exploitation by restricting their access to sites like Facebook. “I hope lawmakers can find an all-encompassing solution,” she said. “Until then, my children will not have their own social media accounts.”