Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 legislation provides immunity from liability for service providers and owners of interactive computer services that publish information provided by others. In plain English, Section 230 essentially protects internet properties from being punished for much of the content posted by its users, provided the property is not knowingly breaking the law. Section 230’s protections were pivotal for the creation of the modern internet and effectively every social media platform – without it, Facebook, Twitter, or any site with a comment section could be held liable for things posted by its users.
A new bill proposed by Lindsey Graham, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal could curtail protections provided by Section 230 unless publishers / companies comply to certain “best practices”, which will be defined by a commission led by Attorney General William Barr.
“The Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019” is also being called the “EARN IT Act”. One of the bill’s key tenets is the prevention of child exploitation on-line, which is a disgusting and on-going problem and should be squashed by any legal means available. However, limiting protections and free speech online is a slippery slope, especially considering the broad wording of the bill that could potentially give the commission the ability to alter the law as it deems necessary, provided the measures somehow prevented the exploitation of children. In addition, placing a legal requirement for web properties to filter and / or screen users’ posts would require immense resources smaller companies may not have, which could ultimately limit their ability to compete.
Since AG Willian Barr has publicly stated his desire to give law enforcement easy access to encrypted messages, there is a fear that the EARN IT bill could be used to break end-to-end encrypted communications through forced back doors. Back doors into encryption are often billed as necessary tools for law enforcement, but it is impossible to build back doors into encryption and not have them exploited by others. Back doors defeat the purpose of end-to-end encryption.
In a piece on Reuters, Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation at Stand Together said, “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.”
The proposed bill is reportedly still being tweaked and the level of congressional support it may have is still unknown at this time.