WASHINGTON — The controversial EARN IT Act, a proposed overhaul of internet rules that digital rights groups and sex worker advocates have overwhelmingly denounced as a threat to free speech, unanimously passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning and is moving forward towards a Senate vote.
The bill passed on a “voice vote” and without any formal hearings to address serious issues of privacy and free speech.
The bill was reintroduced with much fanfare 10 days ago by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and has been rushed through the committee process with unusual speed for such an important law.
Promoted by Blumenthal in partnership with his South Carolina Republican colleague Lindsey Graham, EARN IT was initially introduced in 2020 and purports to have as its goal to “protect victims and survivors of child sexual exploitation.” In reality, however, it is a broad overhaul of Section 230 protections — known by online rights advocates as the First Amendment of the internet — which would strip platforms of immunity for third-party uploaded content.
As XBIZ has reported, EARN IT will also open the way for politicians to define the legal categories of “pornography” and “pornographic website” as they or the lobbies that fund them please, which is a cherished goal of organizations that seek to reintroduce obscenity prosecutions for content now protected by free speech jurisprudence.
EARN IT has been explicitly championed by top religiously-motivated anti-porn crusading groups such as NCOSE — formerly Morality in Media — which received advance notice of its reintroduction in January and has issued an overt endorsement in the past few days.
Several Senators Voice Serious Concerns
Though unanimous, today’s Judiciary Committee vote to hastily move EARN IT towards a Senate vote was preceded by several senators from both parties voicing serious concerns about its implications.
Senators Jon Ossoff (D-Georgia), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Alex Padilla (D-California) and Chris Coons (D-Delaware) all expressed personal reservations about EARN IT and shared comments they received from a vast number of organizations and constituents.
Though not a member of the Committee, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) — the senator with the most expertise on technology and the internet, and one of the drafters of Section 230 in 1996 — tweeted today that “the #EARNITAct is SESTA-FOSTA on steroids.”
Wyden added that “SESTA-FOSTA didn’t help victims” and included a link to a 2019 article showing that the much-criticized law had actually resulted in an increase in sex trafficking.
Top Civil Groups Sound the Alarm About EARN IT’s Implications
Yesterday the Center for Democracy and Technology issued a letter from a coalition of civil organizations urging the senators to kill the bill at the committee stage.
“The undersigned organizations write to express our strong opposition to the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2022 (EARN IT, S.3538),” the letter reads. “We support curbing the scourge of child exploitation online. However, EARN IT will actually make it harder for law enforcement to protect children. It will also result in online censorship that will disproportionately impact marginalized communities and will jeopardize access to encrypted services. Dozens of organizations and experts warned this committee of these risks when this bill was previously considered, and all of those same risks remain. We urge you to oppose this bill.”
The letter was signed by over 60 leading organizations including Free Speech Coalition, the ACLU, the American Library Association, Human Rights Campaign, LGBT Technology Partnership, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National Coalition Against Censorship, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Wikimedia Foundation and the Woodhull Freedom Foundation.
Gaslighting the Critics — and Klobuchar’s Pretzel Logic
But at today’s committee session, many of the senators chose to ignore these warnings and made dismissive statements that seemed to support their decision to hold the vote hastily and without any meaningful debate or formal hearings.
“I can’t imagine why anyone would oppose EARN IT,” said Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-California), gaslighting the letter by the civil groups into nonexistence.
“This is not an [anti-]encryption bill,” declared Sen. Blumenthal, even though much of the bill opens the door to allowing states to monitor private communications and digital storage. Blumenthal also offered a recitation of heinous crimes against children, without offering any evidence that EARN IT would prevent those crimes from happening.
The 75-year-old Connecticut senator — who has been in public office since the 1980s and recently showed evidence of not understanding how social media works by asking Facebook to ban “Finsta” — incorrectly stated that the only opposition to EARN IT comes from “Big Tech lobbyists.”
Meanwhile, in the middle of the conversation about EARN IT, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) expressed delight over the implications of the bill and offered to add his name to the list of official sponsors.
Finally, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) offered a troubling, authoritarian, circular-logic justification for rushing the bill through the legislative process: The sturdy opposition that is shaping up against EARN IT, she declared, is somehow proof that the law is needed.
Main Image: EARN IT Act co-sponsors Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina)