Mar 6, 2020 - Technology

Push to stem online child sex abuse sparks encryption fears

Illustration of two children facing a giant ominous computer.

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Washington is amping up pressure on Big Tech to fight online child sexual exploitation, while critics and some companies fear the real aim is to force the industry to bend to the government's will on encryption.

The big picture: Separate measures from the Trump administration and a bipartisan group of Senate leaders Thursday offer the industry a broad set of general principles for fighting child sexual exploitation, while also threatening to withhold longstanding liability protection from companies that fail to meet government-approved standards.

Driving the news:

  • Attorney General Bill Barr highlighted tech industry support for a global initiative outlining 11 voluntary principles meant to establish a baseline for companies to deter the use of the internet to exploit children.
  • Meanwhile, legislation introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) chips away at tech's prized shield from lawsuits over user-generated content, and raises the possibility of a Justice Department end-run against strong encryption.

Details: The legislation — the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, or EARN IT, Act — would require tech platforms to comply with government-developed best practices to prevent online child sexual exploitation. If they don't, they would lose some of the liability protection they have under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decent Act.

  • A 19-member commission would set the best-practices criteria, and include the heads of the Justice Department, Federal Trade Commission and Department of Homeland Security, along with others appointed by congressional leadership.
  • The legislation is backed by 10 lawmakers, including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

Context: Barr welcomed policy experts for a session on Section 230 at the Justice Department last month, and said the department is concerned about the "expansive reach" of the law.

  • Barr has also pushed tech platforms to build back doors into their encrypted systems to allow law enforcement access.
  • At the event announcing the voluntary principles Thursday, Barr called out the role encryption plays in online child exploitation.
  • "They also communicate using virtually unbreakable encryption," Barr said of online predators. "As the survivors of our roundtable this morning implored, predators’ supposed privacy interests should not outweigh our children’s privacy and security. There’s too much at stake.”

What they're saying: While EARN IT Act proponents note support from 70 groups, including the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, there are plenty of critics across the industry and the political spectrum.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), an author of Section 230, called EARN IT a "deeply flawed and counterproductive bill" and said he will offer his own legislation on fighting child predation.

The other side: In an interview, Blumenthal argued the legislation has "no impact on encryption."

  • He acknowledged the concerns about the power Barr could wield, but said the commission determining best practices would include tech-industry representatives and require a 14-member vote for approval, limiting the power of any one member.
  • "If you believe the tech companies themselves, who say they can stop child abuse images and photos on the internet without interfering with encryption ... we're taking them at their word," Blumenthal said. "The best practices very simply would require them to do what they say they can already do. "

What's next: Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, scheduled a March 11 hearing on the legislation.

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