Law Could Stoke Battle Between Congress and Silicon Valley

Senate Judiciary Committee chair Lindsey Graham and senator Richard Blumenthal plan to introduce a law that could interfere with Big Tech’s ability to provide end-to-end encryption. The Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019 (EARN IT Act) targets the distribution of child sexual abuse material on platforms such as Facebook and Google, making them liable for state prosecution and civil lawsuits for user-posted content currently protected by Section 230.

Reuters reports that the EARN IT Act forces platforms to follow “best practices” in order to avoid liability, as “determined by a 15-member commission led by the Attorney General.” According to Reuters, “the move is the latest example of how regulators and lawmakers in Washington are reconsidering the need for incentives that once helped online companies grow but are increasingly viewed as impediments to curbing online crime, hate speech and extremism.”

Big Tech companies, meanwhile, are concerned that such best practices “will be used to condemn end-to-end encryption.”

Until now, “online platforms [have been] exempted from letting law enforcement access their encrypted networks,” an irritant to federal law enforcement agencies that say it “hinders their investigations.” The proposed law would provide a “workaround to bypass” that protection.

“This a deeply dangerous and flawed piece of legislation that will put every American’s security at risk … it is deeply irresponsible to try to undermine security for online communications,” said Jesse Blumenthal, head of technology and innovation at the Koch-funded network Stand Together, which “sides with tech companies.” “There is no such thing as a back door just for good guys that does not create a front door for bad guys.”

U.S. Attorney General William Barr “questioned whether Facebook, Google and other major online platforms still need the immunity from legal liability that has prevented them from being sued over material their users post … [and] a bipartisan group of senators warned tech companies that they must design their products’ encryption to comply with court orders.”

Graham also warned Apple and Facebook that, “this time next year, if we haven’t found a way that you can live with, we will impose our will on you.” Graham’s spokesperson said that the proposed legislation is “not ready” but “getting close,” and Blumenthal’s spokesperson “said he was encouraged by the progress made by the bill.”