U.S. lawmakers introduce bill fighting online child sexual abuse while threatening encryption

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – A bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday aimed at curbing the online distribution of child sexual abuse material while threatening technology companies that offer encryption.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) attends an event celebrating the anniversary of the White House’s Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The legislation by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal aims to fight such material on platforms like Facebook (FB.O) and Alphabet’s Google’s (GOOGL.O) by making them liable for state prosecution and civil lawsuits.

The Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019,” or “EARN IT Act,” has bipartisan support with eight additional co-sponsors, including Democratic lawmakers such as Senators Diane Feinstein, Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Senators Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer and Joni Ernst.

The bill threatens a key immunity the companies have under federal law called Section 230, which shields online platforms from being treated as the publisher of information they distribute from others, protecting them from most liability over content.

The Earn It Act cuts that protection unless companies comply with a set of “best practices.”

“For the first time, you will have to earn blanket liability protection when it comes to protecting minors,” Graham said in a statement.

Blumenthal said technology companies need to do better.

“Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility,” he said.

This immunity from legal responsibility “is a privilege – they have to earn it – and that’s what our bipartisan bill requires,” Blumenthal added.

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.

Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Editing by Dan Grebler

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