Why is Internet org not for Americans too

EARN IT in the USAAn internet that one ought to earn

A US bill could put online services that rely on end-to-end encryption under considerable pressure. On paper, the proposal aims at depictions of child abuse on the Internet. Platforms have so far done too little against this problem, it was said when the cross-party “EARN IT” draft was presented in March.

Critical senators and civil rights activists, on the other hand, see the project as a renewed attempt against encryption and speak of a "Trojan horse". The proposed law would give US President Donald Trump and his Attorney General Bill Barr "control over speech on the Internet" and "require government access to every aspect of the lives of Americans," warned Democrat Ron Wyden.

Who is responsible for illegal content?

The bill does not mention “encryption” at all. In essence, it is about adapting the so-called provider privilege. This releases online services from direct liability for content that users leave behind on a platform. It is considered to be one of the central regulations for a free Internet, as providers do not have to fear for their existence if one of the millions of users posts something illegal.

In recent years, however, this principle has faltered, at least superficially for exactly the same reason: The argument goes that the freedom of liability can lead to the fact that some providers would not act aggressively against illegal content on their services - and good things too Made money doing it.

Internationally, efforts have recently increased to make platforms more accountable - for example with the German Network Enforcement Act, which is intended to curb hate speech on large platforms, or with a planned EU regulation aimed at countering terrorism propaganda. The upcoming Digital Services Act of the EU Commission has also set itself the goal of revising the liability rules for Internet services.

Similar in the USA. For some time there has been a violent dispute about "Section 230" of the Communications Decency Act, which stipulates the provider privilege. The latest escalation was the announcement by President Trump that social networks would be deprived of their privileges if they provided certain content with fact checks or if they moderated right-wing trolls. In one area, the privileges have already been suspended: a law passed in 2018, ostensibly against human trafficking, makes online services directly responsible for sex work being advertised on their platform.

Commission should make “recommendations”

Now there is the push against depictions of child abuse. The bipartisan draft was submitted by senators, whose votes have weight in their respective parties. Leading the way are Republican Lindsey Graham and his Democratic colleague Richard Blumenthal, with hardliners like Dianne Feinstein and Josh Hawley joining them. The draft is currently in the judiciary committee - chaired by Graham - so there are still some hurdles to overcome before the final decision can be reached.

The law provides for the establishment of a commission as a central point. This is to develop recommendations for the fight against depictions of child abuse, which online services would have to adhere to. For example, an obligation to automatically check all images distributed via a platform for relevant content would be conceivable.

If providers do not adequately comply with the recommendations, they would lose their freedom from liability and would have to be prepared for lawsuits. The previous principle would be reversed: In future, platform operators should no longer be automatically exempt from liability; they must first “earn” this privilege.

This is where encryption comes into play: Except for the respective user, no one inside can access end-to-end encrypted content, including the service providers. The technology is therefore considered essential for secure communication on the Internet. However, if the Commission were to make recommendations that would not be technically feasible without renouncing encryption, the provider and Signal would be confronted with serious problems.

Crypto Wars are not ending

This fear is not a coincidence. For years, authorities have regularly asserted that secure communication would make police or secret service investigations difficult or even impossible. They reacted in panic to the announcement by Facebook a year ago that they wanted to use end-to-end encryption for the messenger service in the future. The New York Times reported in the fall that the service is said to be sending massive amounts of atrocious content with an increasing tendency.

Shortly afterwards, the justice ministers of the so-called "Five Eyes" published a joint statement in which they called for access to encrypted content for investigative authorities. This is necessary because otherwise "criminals, including child abusers, terrorists and organized crime groups" could evade prosecution, it says at the beginning.

Many take it for granted that the elimination of encryption would be at the top of a list of recommendations should the EARN-IT law be passed in its present form. “This is definitely an anti-encryption law,” summed up Riana Pfefferkorn, who works on encryption and IT security at Stanford University. The digital fundamental rights NGO Electronic Frontier Foundation speaks of a “disaster for Internet users”

With some certainty the law would have global effects. “The planned law will probably not achieve its set goal, but will have catastrophic consequences for freedom of expression far outside the US,” recently MEPs from the Pirate Party, including German MP Patrick Breyer, wrote to the US Senate.

MEPs fear how US providers will have to deal with data from European citizens in the future - and vice versa, like European operators with data from US Americans. And they draw attention to the fact that abusers could simply additionally encrypt relevant content or dive into the Darknet themselves. In the end, completely uninvolved users in particular would have to forego secure communication, warn the MPs, and would also be exposed to “censorship of unimaginable proportions”.

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About the author


Tomas grew up in Vienna, worked there for various providers and also studied political science. He received his journalistic training at Heise-Verlag, where he wrote for Mac & i, c't and Heise Online. He can be reached at +49 30 577148268 or [email protected] (PGP key) and tweets sometimes more, sometimes less at @tomas_np
Published 05/31/2020 at 9:16 am