While COVID-19 causes a spiral of panic across the globe, free speech and digital activists are beginning to panic about a new bill which was introduced to Congress on March 5th. The EARN-IT Act, or “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020,” is a bi-partisan bill that aims to stop the transmission of sexually explicit content involving children as well as police online sex trafficking schemes. The Act establishes a “National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention” which would recommend best practices for identifying and reporting child sexual exploitation online. In the Act, they define online exploitation of children as “enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse of children and the proliferation of online sexual abuse material” (Sec. 3b).
The EARN-IT Act appears to tackle a rampant issue, but why are some individuals worried? Within the text of the bill, the concept of “best practices” is undefined. The Commission that the Act would establish does not clearly define restrictions or guides as to what “best practices” can be. According to Free Press Action Senior Policy Counsel, Guarav Laroia, “We don’t yet know what these rules might look like, and to charge a governmental commission with review of every online provider’s practices on the basis of unannounced standards would chill free speech” (Karr, 2020). Laroia’s concern isn’t unfounded. In order to collect this data, some are concerned that the Commission will observe and maintain all online communications. In Section 4, subsection 3, the matters which the Commission will address are outlined. These 11 matters range from specific tasks like, “preparing and issuing transparency reports,” to broader ones like, “preventing, identifying, disrupting, and reporting child sexual exploitation.” One matter of particular note is “training and supporting content moderators who review child sexual exploitation content. . .” While well intentioned, the Act explicitly acknowledges that a government entity will be reviewing content and deeming whether it is appropriate are not.
The Act does contain the clause in Section 9, “Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to require a provider of an interactive computer service to search, screen, or scan for instances of online child sexual exploitation.” Likely included as a safeguard, this clause is only directed at the computer service provider, not the federal or state government. This clause does not guarantee that the government will not “search, screen, or scan” your online presence to make sure you are not violating the Act.
Sexually explicit content involving children is a major concern which does warrant address, but will this Act, as it is presently defined goes too far, infringing on free speech and searching personal property without a warrant. As it stands right now, free speech advocates are strongly concerned over the potential this bill has to derail freedom under the guise of preventing a social wrong.
READ THE EARN-IT ACT HERE: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/senate-bill/3398/text
Karr, T. (2020). The EARN-IT Act: A Very Bad Bill Gets its Day in Congress. Free Press. https://www.freepress.net/news/press-releases/earn-it-act-very-bad-bill-gets-its-day-congress