The EARN IT Act Violates the Constitution

Since senators introduced the EARN IT Act (S. 3398) in early March, EFF has called attention to the many ways in which the bill would be a disaster for Internet users’ free speech and security.

We’ve explained how the EARN IT Act could be used to drastically undermine encryption. Although the bill doesn’t use the word “encryption” in its text, it gives government officials like Attorney General William Barr the power to compel online service providers to break encryption or be exposed to potentially crushing legal liability.

The bill also violates the Constitution’s protections for free speech and privacy. As Congress considers the EARN IT Act—which would require online platforms to comply with to-be-determined “best practices” in order to preserve certain protections from criminal and civil liability for user-generated content under Section 230 (47 U.S.C. § 230)—it’s important to highlight the bill’s First and Fourth Amendment problems.

First Amendment

As we explained in a letter to Congress, the EARN IT Act violates the First Amendment in several ways.

1. The bill’s broad categories of “best practices” for online service providers amount to an impermissible regulation of editorial activity protected by the First Amendment.

The bill’s stated purpose is “to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children.” However, it doesn’t directly target child sexual abuse material (CSAM, also referred to as child pornography) or child sex trafficking ads. (CSAM is universally condemned, and there is a broad framework of existing laws that seek to eradicate it, as we explain in the Fourth Amendment section below).

Instead, the bill would allow the government to go much further and regulate how online service providers operate their platforms and manage user-generated content—the very definition of editorial activity in the Internet age. Just as Congress cannot pass a law demanding news media cover specific stories or present the news a certain way, it similarly cannot direct how and whether online platforms host user-generated content.

2. The EARN IT Act’s selective removal of Section 230 immunity creates an unconstitutional condition.

Congress created Section 230 and, therefore, has wide authority to modify or repeal the law without violating the First Amendment (though as a policy matter, we don’t support that). However, the Supreme Court has said that the government may not condition the granting of a governmental privilege on individuals or entities doing things that amount to a violation of their First Amendment rights.

Thus, Congress may not selectively grant Section 230 immunity only to online platforms that comply with “best practices” that interfere with their First Amendment right to make editorial choices regarding their hosting of user-generated content.

3. The EARN IT Act fails strict scrutiny.

The bill seeks to hold online service providers responsible for a particular type of content and the choices they make regarding user-generated content, and so it must satisfy the strictest form of judicial scrutiny.

Although the content the EARN IT Act seeks to regulate is abhorrent and the government’s interest in stopping the creation and distribution of that content is compelling, the First Amendment still requires that the law be narrowly tailored to address those weighty concerns. Yet, given the bill’s broad scope, it will inevitably force online platforms to censor the constitutionally protected speech of their users.

Fourth Amendment

The EARN IT Act violates the Fourth Amendment by turning online platforms into government actors that search users’ accounts without a warrant based on probable cause.

The bill states, “Nothing in this Act or the amendments made by this Act shall be construed to require a provider of an interactive computer service to search, screen, or scan for instances of online child sexual exploitation.” Nevertheless, given the bill’s stated goal to, among other things, “prevent” online child sexual exploitation, it’s likely that the “best practices” will effectively coerce online platforms into proactively scanning users’ accounts for content such as CSAM or child sex trafficking ads.

Contrast this with what happens today: if an online service provider obtains actual knowledge of an apparent or imminent violation of anti-child pornography laws, it’s required to make a report to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline. NCMEC then forwards actionable reports to the appropriate law enforcement agencies.

Under this current statutory scheme, an influential decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, written by then-Judge Neil Gorsuch, held that NCMEC is not simply an agent of the government, it is a government entity established by act of Congress with unique powers and duties that are granted only to the government.

On the other hand, courts have largely rejected arguments that online service providers are agents of the government in this context. That’s because the government argues that companies voluntarily scan their own networks for private purposes, namely to ensure that their services stay safe for all users. Thus, courts typically rule that these scans are considered “private searches” that are not subject to the Fourth Amendment’s warrant requirement. Under this doctrine, NCMEC and law enforcement agencies also do not need a warrant to view users’ account content already searched by the companies.

However, the EARN IT Act’s “best practices” may effectively coerce online platforms into proactively scanning users’ accounts in order to keep the companies’ legal immunity under Section 230. Not only would this result in invasive scans that risk violating all users’ privacy and security, companies would arguably become government agents subject to the Fourth Amendment. In analogous cases, courts have found private parties to be government agents when the “government knew of and acquiesced in the intrusive conduct” and “the party performing the search intended to assist law enforcement efforts or to further his own ends.”

Thus, to the extent that online service providers scan users’ accounts to comply with the EARN IT Act, and do so without a probable cause warrant, defendants would have a much stronger argument that these scans violate the Fourth Amendment. Given Congress’ goal of protecting children from online sexual exploitation, it should not risk the suppression of evidence by effectively coercing companies to scan their networks.

Next Steps

Presently, the EARN IT Act has been introduced in the Senate and assigned to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which held a hearing on March 11. The next step is for the committee to consider amendments during a markup proceeding (though given the current state of affairs it’s unclear when that will be). We urge you to contact your members of Congress and ask them to reject the bill.

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