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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.

Go deeper

Alabama trying to use COVID relief funds to expand prisons

Inside the Julia Tutwiler Correctional Facility in Wetumpka, Alabama in 2018. Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images

Alabama state lawmakers are trying to funnel up to $400 million of the state's American Rescue Plan funds to pay for a $1.3 billion plan to build and renovate prisons across the state, the Associated Press reports.

Why it matters: Diverting dollars from the COVID-relief package, passed in March, is prompting criticism over misuse.

1 hour ago - World

Jake Sullivan discussed human rights and Yemen with Saudi crown prince

MBS in 2018. Photo: Fayez Nureldine/AFP via Getty

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussed efforts to end the war in Yemen, the de-escalation of regional tensions with Iran, and Saudi Arabia's human rights record in their meeting on Monday, a senior U.S. official told Axios.

Why it matters: This was Sullivan's first trip to the Middle East since taking up his post in January, and he was the most senior visitor to the kingdom so far from the Biden administration, which has kept the crown prince at arm's length over his roles in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the war in Yemen.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Top Pentagon officials contradict Biden on Afghanistan advice

Photo: Carolone Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Top military leaders confirmed in a Senate hearing Tuesday they recommended earlier this year that the U.S. keep 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, and that they believed withdrawing those forces would lead to the collapse of the Afghan military.

Why it matters: Biden denied last month that his top military advisers wanted troops to remain in Afghanistan, telling ABC's George Stephanopoulos: "No one said that to me that I can recall."