EARN IT Bill Threatens Free Speech Online

As Lindsey Graham prepares to lead yet another attack on the livelihoods of sex workers, who will be caught in the crossfire?


Getty Images/iStockphoto

Censorship of free speech online, courtesy of https://www.istockphoto.com/photos/free-speech-online. The new EARN IT bill threatens the basic freedoms humans are entitled to.

Back before the age of social media giants; before Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, and Pinterest– the internet was the Wild West. Almost entirely decentralized, there was a website for everything. Anyone could create and curate a webpage, and reliably attract visitors. Children were directed to kid-friendly websites without being confined to one-size-fits-all social media. All of that changed as companies began to arise in the fields of the web, learning to monetize and exploit the new frontier of the internet. Now, the majority of the internet is owned by private companies, mining their users for data and ad space while platforming some of the worst people ever to grace the computer screen.

Ideally, these companies would be regulated– stopped from violating freedom of speech, forced to give privacy to their users, and made to operate at least somewhat favorably toward the people using their services. Unfortunately, the internet has become the latest battleground in what has been deemed ‘the Culture War’. One of the casualties of this commercialization and politicization has been sex workers, who are about to suffer yet another blow, along with anyone wishing for privacy online.

Now enters the EARN IT Act, proposed by Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Richard Blumental in early 2020. This bill, purportedly designed to reduce the distribution of child pornography and human trafficking, is predicted to cause large encryption rollbacks if passed. This bill would see the Justice Department create a set of voluntary guidelines for companies to follow regarding anti-encryption protocols. However, while these guidelines are voluntary on paper, companies who do not comply would lose legal protections, which would leave them vulnerable to expensive criminal charges. This incentivizes them to follow the guidelines. (Source 1)

Two hands grip the bars of a barcode, giving the barcode a double meaning of imprisonment and capitalism,
Consumption, courtesy of https://www.gettyimages.com/illustrations/capitalism. Corporations will seek to control consumers and employees as long as there is money to be made.

The problem with bills like these is that they do very little to address the underlying problems which create human trafficking and the dissemination of child pornography, and instead encourage censorship and reduced safety/income for sex workers. SESTA-FOSTA was a similar attempt at this, which ended in extremely reduced safety for sex workers and restricted speech for those online. By opening online companies up to lawsuits should ‘prostitution’ or human trafficking be discovered on their networks, the bill incentivized a crackdown on content made by sex workers, discussions related to sex, and anything they feared would endanger them. This included discussions of sex education and queer issues. This reduced visibility of trafficking victims and removed sources of income for sex workers, which heightened the likelihood that they would turn to less safe work in order to maintain a steady source of revenue. (Source 2) These same dangers are present in the EARN IT bill.

Both bills have undermined Section 230, a legal code which protects companies from liability should a user of their website commit illegal acts using the website. This disincentivizes companies from using excessive censorship, as they are in no legal danger. Many will still censor their platforms to create a sanitized environment for advertisers, but those that make money off of sex-related content will not censor it until they are well-known enough to move on to content which attracts more advertisers. Undermining this law would increase censorship significantly, as companies would now have both the interests of advertisers and their own interest in avoiding expensive lawsuits to consider. However, conversely, it will not encourage companies to seek out harmful content on their sites, as this would require admitting the presence of said content. The EARN IT Act will also discourage the use of encryption by companies, as the use of encryption could be used as evidence of guilt in court. According to an interview of Dr. Riana Pfefferkon by the Washington Post: “[Earn It] will ‘pave the way for 50 state attorneys general to go after encryption. The goal of this is to make sure that companies can be punished at the state level for providing encryption.’”

Already there is a growing online movement against the bill, with several petitions against it gaining thousands of signatures, many of these petitions asking those signing them to contact their representatives. This even includes a Discord server called, aptly, “Stop EARN IT Act”.

What can be done to stop this act? Petitions can be signed (ActionNetwork, ResistBot), your representatives can be contacted (Find Your Representative, Find Your Legislator), and protests can be attended. Protect your right to free speech. Stand with sex workers. Oppose EARN IT.