According to a September 2019 story in the New York Times, the volume of online content described as “child sexual abuse material” grew from 3,000 reports in 1998 to 45 million in 2019. What used to be called “child pornography,” which was bad enough, needed a broader term to encompass material that increasingly contains photographic and video content depicting torture and rape of children under the age of ten. And those numbers are the reported incidents.
“An investigation by The New York Times found an insatiable criminal underworld that had exploited the flawed and insufficient efforts to contain it. As with hate speech and terrorist propaganda, many tech companies failed to adequately police sexual abuse imagery on their platforms, or failed to cooperate sufficiently with the authorities when they found it.”
Yet the scope and nature of this story does nothing to temper the propagandist tone adopted by the good folks at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Once again, they seek to warn the public that congressional response to these staggering revelations is yet another “dangerous threat to free speech, innovation, and security.” Their latest call to action in response to a new bill introduced last week is truly something to behold—even for the EFF.
The post is illustrated with a black eagle set against a gray, film-scratched background meant to conjure the mood of a Nazi propaganda film. Cracking a microphone (speech) with one talon and a key (private security) with the other, the bird’s menacing wings bracket a masonic, all-seeing eye. And below this subtle iconography, the EFF begins its dark prophecy, “Senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal are quietly circulating a serious threat to your free speech and security online.” Notice how it always begins with a conspiracy with these guys? In truth the proposal to which the EFF refers is no more being “quietly circulated” than any other bit of legislation on the Hill. In fact you can read the text of the new bill right here.
When the EFF pulls this crap in response to a copyright enforcement proposal, it’s merely obnoxious bullshit. But now we’re talking about confronting a growing online market for videos and photos of raped and tortured children. So maybe, just maybe, we could have the conversation without the EFF trying to silence it at the first syllable? Nope. “We must stop this dangerous proposal before it sees the light of day,” says their call to action.
Before it sees the light of day? Not consider its pros and cons? Not a sober assessment of the provisions and any potential pitfalls? Nope. Kill the bill and its purpose. To hell with the child victims. End of discussion. So say the self-appointed guardians of the Electronic Frontier. But stay tuned for future blog posts in which the EFF says something cringy like, Child sexual abuse is really, really bad. We don’t like it one little bit. But this bill is the wrong solution. Or some such disingenuous blather. Because that’s what they say about every proposal to address criminal conduct online.
What is the EARN IT Act 2020?
In response to the stunning growth in online child sexual abuse material (a 1.5 million percent increase since 1998), the Senate Judiciary Committee decided that perhaps Big Tech was not doing quite enough to help address the problem. And just maybe, thought the bipartisan group of senators, this is because Big Tech lacks the incentive to help, due to the fact that they have enjoyed blanket immunity for liability under the provisions of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996. (Note the word help, not solve. Nobody expects Big Tech to outright solve the crime of child sexual abuse.)
So a bill sponsored by Senators Graham and Blumenthal called the EARN IT Act was introduced on March 5th of this year. The acronym, derived from Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, intentionally declares that if internet service providers want to continue to avail themselves of the liability shield under 230, they will have to earn that privilege by complying with the conditions set forth in this new legislation. If it becomes law.
The bill calls for the establishment of a commission to develop best practices for identifying and eliminating child sexual abuse material online. Service providers, especially the major platforms that host vast amounts of user-uploaded material, will have to meet the new guidelines established by the commission in order to remain shielded by Section 230. If that sounds like a fairly sober approach to address a very serious type of criminal activity, expect the major platforms to strenuously oppose this bill. And the EFF to be right by their side.
Exploiting Current Politics to Sustain a Harmful Status Quo
Seeking to obfuscate the real narrative that the EARN IT Act is solidly bi-partisan, including Democratic co-signers Sheldon Whitehouse and Diane Feinstein, the EFF prominently invokes Attorney General William Barr for the express purpose of scaring readers. They write, “The Graham-Blumenthal bill would finally give Barr the power to demand that tech companies obey him [by weakening encryption] or face overwhelming liability from lawsuits based on their users’ activities. Such a demand would put encryption providers like WhatsApp and Signal in an awful conundrum….”
As mentioned in a related post, I personally think AG Barr is bananas. I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him, which would not be very far. But one way or another, he will not be at DOJ forever, and will quite possibly be gone before this bill becomes law, the commission it mandates is established, or the best practices are defined. (And that’s if the Internet Association does not succeed in ripping the guts out of the bill behind the scenes.)
More to the point, this legislation is designed to address a form of criminal conspiracy that predates AG Barr’s fifteen minutes in the spotlight as well as the incoherent administration he serves. The tragic reality of exploited children will persist long after the Trump circus has packed up its tents and gone. Meanwhile, for the EFF to imply that the EARN IT Act is merely an extension of Barr’s authoritarian impulses is so grotesquely irresponsible and cold-hearted that one can reasonably ask what makes them think they stand on any higher moral ground.
The victims of child sexual predators must remain in the foreground of any discussion about this bill. They should not be treated as an abstraction to be sublimated by the EFF’s latest claim that online speech is threatened—again. The fact that they are willing to use these tactics to try to kill the debate itself on this particular issue is truly a new low for them. After all, if we can’t even have a conversation about how the internet helps people destroy children for profit, we’re hardly a society with any principles worth defending. I don’t actually think that’s who we are. But apparently it’s who the EFF thinks we ought to be.