Encryption Debate Stalls Child Protection Bill

Concern over the use of end-to-end encryption in the United States is preventing a bill aimed at preventing child sexual abuse from becoming law. 

In a rare example of political unification during an election year, the “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2020,” or EARN IT Act, has attracted bipartisan support. 

If passed, the bill would create a government-backed National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention. The commission would be tasked with developing "best practices" for owners of internet platform to "prevent, reduce and respond to" the plethora of child sexual abuse material online.

Companies that fail to comply with the best practices Congress chooses to adopt would lose their legal liability shield as defined in the Communications Decency Act. Section 230 of that act states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."

While many welcome the bill as an attempt to protect children from the ruinous horrors of sexual exploitation, others view it as a sneaky attempt to limit the privacy of American citizens.

Critics of the bill anticipate that a ban on the use of end-to-end encryption in commercial services will be one of the best practices recommended by the commission. Law enforcement has warned that such encryption allows sexual predators to operate with impunity by making it impossible for companies, law enforcement, or the government to access private communication between devices. 

Senator Ron Wyden has derided the bill as a "Trojan horse to give Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump the power to control online speech and require government access to every aspect of Americans' lives."

Co-sponsor of the bill Senate Judiciary Committee chairperson Lindsey Graham stated that the proposed law had no hidden agenda, explaining that it is "not about the encryption debate, but the best business practices."

In an effort to give the bill a fighting chance of overcoming the question of encryption, one of its co-sponsors, Senator Josh Hawley, said: "I can tell you right now I will not support something that compromises the integrity of encryption for users, because I think that that's hugely significant."

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