The EARN IT Act was introduced on March 5th to prevent, reduce and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children. The bill will remove liability protections for tech companies when their users share child pornography and other materials to exploit children. The bill’s goal to, among other things, prevent online child sexual exploitation. To accomplish this, the Justice Department is likely to coerce online platforms into proactively scanning users’ accounts for content such as child sex trafficking ads. While with current policies, online service providers are required to make a report to the Nation Center for Missing and Exploited (NCMEC) CyberTipline if they obtain actual knowledge of an apparent or imminent violation of anti-child pornography laws. NCMEC then forwards actionable reports to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. 

However, many people have expressed their concern regarding this bill. First of all, the law could be used to undermine encryption drastically. Encryption is the process of converting information or data into a code, and thus, allows online platforms to protect data from other people or unauthorized access securely. The bill will ultimately weaken the encryption of online platforms, which would be a disaster for Internet users’ free speech and security. People’s personal conversations and content will be accessible by the government. Although “encryption” does not appear a single time in the bill, Cybersecurity experts and tech companies fear that the bill will require companies to give law enforcement special access to encrypted communications with a warrant which would weaken protections that make the Internet safer for all users. 

Second, this new policy does not directly target child sexual abuse material or child sex trafficking ads. Instead, it allows the government to go much further and regulate how online service providers operate their platforms and manage their user-generated content. Moreover, the act seeks to hold online service providers responsible for a particular type of content and the choices they make regarding the user-created content. 

Furthermore, the bill violates the first and fourth amendments. The EARN IT Act turns online platforms into government actors that search users’ accounts without a warrant based on probable cause. Currently, online service providers voluntarily scan their networks for private purposes, which are generally not subjected to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Under this ruling, NCMEC and law enforcement also do not require a warrant to view users’ account content already searched by the companies. Also, the bill targets explicitly Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online services from being responsible for their user-generated content. In essence, if an individual is defamed by a post from another individual online, he or she cannot charge the service provider. With the bill, tech companies would lose this protection if they fail to meet a list of practices for identifying and reporting child sex abuse material to the National Center for Exploited Children. Without the protections enshrined in Section 230, companies would be vulnerable to lawsuits that could leave them bankrupt, giving them a significant financial incentive to comply.

On the other hand, lawyers accuse tech companies of using encryption and potential loss of protection as an excuse to evade responsibility for criminal activity on their services. Connecticut Senator Blumenthal stated that tech companies’ real goal is not losing any portion of their liability shield, guaranteed by Section 230. He characterized those protections as a relic of an earlier era when Internet companies needed special protections to innovate and thrive.

The bill will ultimately put internet users’ privacy in jeopardy. Our personal information is likely to be more accessible to hackers as it becomes accessible to law enforcement. The government’s attempt to reduce child exploitation is likely to result in loss of privacy. Emails, chat history, tax information, card numbers and many more become more accessible to others.

Much debate has been going on regarding this bill since early March. The bill has been introduced, but it is far from becoming law as it has to pass the senate, house and president. Between user privacy and child abuse prevention, lawmakers and tech companies are split on this matter.