Ingrid Hofeldt, MJLST Staffer
In March of 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the nation, Senator Lindsey Graham introduced the EARN IT Act (EIA), a bill that would allow Congress to coerce internet providers into decreasing the security of communications on their platforms or risk a potential deluge of legal battles. In addition to violating the freedom and security many U.S. citizens enjoy online, this bill will particularly harm sex workers, who already face instability, housing insecurity, and the threat of poverty as the COVID-19 pandemic has made their work nearly impossible. Many human rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, Human Rights Watch, and the Stanford Center for Internet and Society strongly oppose this bill.
With the aim to protect children from sexual exploitation online, the EIA would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA). The CDA protects internet platforms from legal liability for the content shared by their users. Because of the CDA, the government cannot currently prosecute Facebook for its users’ decisions to upload child pornography onto their accounts. However, the EIA strips platforms of this protection. Additionally, the EIA establishes a National Commission on the Prevention of Online Child Sexual Exploitation. This commission will develop best practices for internet platforms to “prevent, reduce, and respond” to the online sexual exploitation of children. Though not legally binding, these guidelines could influence courts’ decision making as they interpret the EIA.
While preventing the sexual exploitation of children is a worthy aim, this act will provide victimized children with little protection they don’t already have, while opening sex workers and child victims of sexual exploitation up to greater violence at the hands of sex traffickers. Officials at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) are overburdened by the existing reports of online child sexual exploitation. The center has reached “a breaking point where NCMEC’s manual review capabilities and law enforcement investigations are no longer doable.” Sex traffickers also don’t necessarily use the platforms that the EIA would target or use internet platforms at all. As one sex worker explained, “[i]t’s interesting to note that Jeffrey Epstein didn’t use a website to traffic young women and neither do the pimps I have met in my 17 years as a sex worker.”
The EIA will impact internet providers’ ability to offer end-to-end encryption, the software that allows internet users to anonymously and securely message each other. Sex workers rely on end-to-end encryption to connect, share information relating to health and safety, and build their businesses. An anonymous sex worker explains that websites with end-to-end encryption allow them to “safely schedule and screen their clients before meeting them in person,” while making them “less dependent on exploitative third parties like pimps.” If enacted, the EIA will likely harm sex workers immensely, because (1) sex workers will likely make less money without online platforms to secure clients; (2) sex workers will have to resort to less safe, offline means of finding clients; and (3) sex workers who continue using these platforms that have become unencrypted will face the risk of prosecution if law enforcement or website monitors discover they are engaging illegal activity. The EIA will affect internet providers’ ability to offer end-to-end encryption in primarily two ways.
Firstly, strong evidence exists that the commission the EIA creates will establish anti-encryption guidelines. This commission will include 19 unelected officials, some of whom must have experience in law enforcement. Unsurprisingly, this commission has no mandated representation of sex workers or sex worker advocates. The EIA will not require this commission to conduct human rights impact assessments, write transparency reports, or establish metrics of success. Given that the commission is headed by Attorney General Barr, who has strongly opposed encryption in the past, it is likely that the commission will recommend that internet platforms either (1) not employ end-to-end encryption, the practice that allows for private, secure internet communications or (2) allow law enforcement agencies a “backdoor” around end-to-end encryption so they can monitor otherwise secure internet communications. The commission also has the power to create whatever recommended standards for internet platforms that it desires, which could a recommendation ban end-to-end encryption. While these guidelines do not have the force of law, courts could look at them persuasively when ruling on whether an internet provider has violated the EIA.
Additionally, the EIA has the potential to open internet providers up to crushing liability from state governments or private individuals based on whether these providers offer encrypted messaging. Regardless of how courts ultimately rule, lengthy and costly court battles between internet providers and state governments will likely ensue. Some internet providers will probably choose to stop offering encrypted messaging services or allow law enforcement agencies a “backdoor” into their messaging services so law enforcement agents can view private Facebook messages or videos. The “voluntary” policies offered by the commission could become essentially mandatory if providers wish to save money.
Senator Patrick Leahy responded to the concerns around encryption by adding an amendment to the EIA that stipulates that “no action will be brought against the provider for utilizing [encryption];” however, Senator Leahy did not address the issue of a law enforcement “backdoor.” Additionally, state governments could still use the EIA hold internet platforms accountable under their state laws, for recklessly or negligently failing to moderate encrypted and report it to NCMEC. Mike Lemon, the senior director and federal government affairs counsel reasons that “the new version of the [EIA] replaces one set of problems with another by opening the door to an unpredictable and inconsistent set of standards under state laws that pose many of the same risks to strong encryption.”
Sex workers are already vulnerable to food insecurity, housing insecurity, and the threat of poverty because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent passage of FOSTA/SESTA, a law that resulted in the extermination of websites such as Backpage that sex workers commonly used. As one sex worker explains, “my work is all contact work… a pandemic with a transmittal virus means… [my work has] moved completely online.” Based on survey results conducted by Hacking/Hustling, 78.5% of sex workers secure the majority of their income through sex work. Following the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, 73.5% of sex workers reported that their financial situations had changed. In the words of these anonymous respondents: “I’m homeless and can’t pay the bills.” “My income decreased by 58% following FOSTA/SESTA.” “I used to make enough to feel comfortable. Now I’m barely scraping by.” “I feel totally erased.”
The EIA will narrow the amount of websites that sex workers can safely use, if a backdoor for encryption is allowed to law enforcement. Additionally, if internet platforms are liable under state laws, these platforms will more heavily police their content, resulting in the removal or prosecution of sex workers. Many sex workers will likely leave platforms that don’t provide encryption given safety and privacy concerns. While “sex workers were pioneers of the digital realm . . . [they] are now being kicked off the same online platforms . . .[they] built and inspired.”
Sex workers and sex worker advocacy organizations have come out in strong opposition against the EIA; however, given the lack of political sway sex workers hold due to societal biases, their outcry has fallen largely on deaf ears. In response to the EIA, several prominent sex workers organized a live, virtual art exhibit to protest the EIA. In the words left behind on this page: “[t]hey can try to keep on killing us, to put their hands over our mouths, but they can never keep us away. We’ll be back.”