Feb 10, 2022 - Technology

Senators once more take up tech liability changes

Illustration of a folder labeled 230 on the edge of a computer trash can
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Limiting tech's liability shield in the name of fighting online child sexual exploitation is once again on Congress' agenda.

Driving the news: The EARN IT Act, which removes tech platforms' immunity for violations of laws related to online child sexual abuse material, will be voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday.

  • A version of the bill previously passed out of committee in 2020 but never received a full Senate vote. Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) reintroduced the bill earlier this month.

Why it matters: The renewed effort to move the bill forward signals that there's still bipartisan interest in modifying tech's online liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which has become a battleground in recent years.

Between the lines: In debates over Section 230, which shield online providers from most legal actions over content that users post on their platforms, Democrats tend to criticize companies for failing to remove enough material and Republicans attack them for removing — "censoring" — too much.

  • But when it comes to the issue of children being exploited online, there is bipartisan consensus on a perceived need to change Section 230.

Yes, but: Congress' most ambitious effort to date to amend Section 230, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act of 2018, had similarly positive intentions to help victims of sex trafficking. But critics argue it has missed the mark, hurting sex workers and chilling online expression while failing to achieve its goal.

What they're saying: Proponents of the new bill, which has 21 co-sponsors and bipartisan support, include the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, the National District Attorneys Association and online dating company Match Group.

  • Those groups have called the bill a critical step that would incentivize companies to eliminate and fight online child sexual abuse material.

The other side: More than 50 civil rights, civil liberties and privacy groups wrote to committee lawmakers Wednesday arguing the bill would make it harder for law enforcement to protect children, hurt marginalized communities and jeopardize encryption.

  • “By making the use of encryption a potential basis for liability, this bill will make users less safe online, and interfere with the removal of illegal content," said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, a tech lobbying group, which also wrote to the committee with other tech groups.

Be smart: The bill is likely to make it out of committee but faces a tough road to full Senate approval and House passage.

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