Just what we need: Facebook having even more power.
Just what we need: Facebook having even more power. COM & O/Getty Images

Just when you thought the Internet couldn’t get any worse, here comes Congress with a truly disastrous idea: The EARN-IT Act, ostensibly intended to crack down on sexual abuse of minors, would wreak havoc on privacy and broadly censor everyone’s speech around sex and sexuality online.

The whole bill is a mess from top to bottom. It’s a doubling-down on the disastrous SESTA/FOSTA, passed in 2018 (with support, disappointingly, from Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray). That 2018 bill was meant to reduce human trafficking; the real impact was to shut down online resources that protected sex workers, and, bizarrely, personal ads and Tumblr art.

Now, not content to have endangered sex workers with SESTA/FOSTA, Congress is coming for the rest of us with EARN-IT.

So what is this fresh hell? Its full name is the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies [EARN IT] Act of 2020, and it creates a 19-member panel to decide on “best practices” to fight child sexual exploitation. That doesn’t sound necessarily bad, but the real problem is that online companies will be required to obey those practices or else face massive lawsuits and even criminal charges.

Essentially, this panel would deputize companies to act as government informants, monitoring everything you say and do online and tightening rules about what you’re allowed to post.

We know what happens when laws like this are passed, because we saw it with SESTA/FOSTA: Online companies, fearful of lawsuits or criminal actions, will adopt over-broad policies that make it too risky for them to host even harmless content, like Craigslist personals. EARN-IT is written so broadly that companies might, for example, ban teachers from messaging students or an aunt from chatting with a nephew.

There's no way tech companies have enough human moderators to check every single Facebook message, Dropbox file, or Zoom call for illicit content. So they'll just tighten restrictions on all users and all content.

It could also mean an end to encrypted networks, which are used by everyone from corporate whistleblowers to political dissidents to members of Congress. (Many of EARN-IT’s backers have expressed a desire to wipe out, or at least install spying measures into, encrypted networks.)

Obviously, material that sexually exploits children needs to be dealt with to the fullest extent of the law. But this bill doesn’t do anything to address the causes of abuse, or to provide resources to victims, or to bring abusers to justice. It’s just an excuse to give law enforcement more tools to watch your every move online.

EARN-IT passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and now heads to the full Senate. There’s still time to stop it.