Politics

‘Threatens Free Expression’: Senate Panel Passes Online Child Sex Bill Critics Say Will ‘Jeopardize Security’

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Ailan Evans Associate Editor
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The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill Thursday which is intended to curb the spread of child sexual material online, but has drawn the ire of privacy advocates and tech groups.

The EARN IT Act, led by Republican South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham and Democratic Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, would make liability protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act contingent on companies adequately following “best practices” for online platforms regarding the prevention of online child exploitation conduct. These practices would be determined by a National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, which would also be established by the bill.

The bill was approved with a voice vote, and it will now head to the Senate floor. (RELATED: EXCLUSIVE: House Republicans Call On Amazon To End Relationship With OnlyFans Over Child Pornography)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal talks with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) before the start of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing concerning the roles and responsibilities for defending the nation against cyber attacks, on Capitol Hill, October 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Sen. Richard Blumenthal talks with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) before the start of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing concerning the roles and responsibilities for defending the nation against cyber attacks, on Capitol Hill, October 19, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Critics have argued the bill would encourage companies to aggressively moderate content and weaken encryption by exposing companies to civil lawsuits and state-level criminal charges for child exploitation content. A coalition of privacy advocates, tech groups, and civil rights organizations sent a letter to Senate lawmakers opposing the bill and warning the legislation would “threaten free expression” and “jeopardize security.”

“But by opening the door to sweeping liability under state laws, the EARN IT Act would strongly disincentivize providers from providing strong encryption,” the letter read. “Section 5(7)(A) of EARN IT states that provision of encrypted services shall not ‘serve as an independent basis for liability of a provider; under the expanded set of state criminal and civil laws for which providers would face liability under EARN IT.”

While lawmakers have acknowledged potential privacy concerns posed by the bill, they questioned tech companies’ motivations in opposing legislation regulating online platforms.

“Every time you turn around, the tech companies have a reason not to do everything. That’s wearing thin,” Graham told Politico.

“We are a nation that needs to do so much more,” Democratic New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker said during the bill’s markup shortly after acknowledging “legitimate” privacy and free expression issues raised by the legislation.

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