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Four Ways the EARN IT Act Protects Kids Online

On Jan. 31, 2024, the CEOs of Meta, Snap, TikTok, Discord and X (formerly known as Twitter) appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss online child sexual exploitation of children (OSEC) – a crime IJM has been fighting for over a decade.

During the last year alone, IJM mobilized thousands of advocates to urge congressional action on a number of online child protection bills under consideration by U.S. policymakers. Our team has consulted on legislation, lobbied members of Congress and their staff, testified before Congress and released groundbreaking research about the extent of this global crime – one that we have seen often involves American offenders using U.S-based technology platforms to abuse children in low-income countries like the Philippines. In October 2023, hundreds of IJM advocates came to Washington, D.C., to learn about this issue and IJM’s policy priorities around the topic.

What is the EARN IT Act?

The EARN IT Act – which stands for Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act – is one piece of legislation before Congress that aims to protect kids online and prevent OSEC. In fact, the EARN IT Act is one of the best policy options under consideration in the U.S. to increase online protections for kids who are at risk for this horrific type of abuse.

Criminals use social media and messaging platforms – the kind we all use on a regular basis – to proliferate the creation and spread of child sexual abuse material (CSAM). With many of the world’s major tech companies based in the United States, the U.S. government has the unique ability to act on behalf of children across the world.

The bill offers four key provisions, each strategically poised to affect breakthrough change:

  1. Creates incentives for technology companies.
  2. Strengthens requirements for tech companies to report suspected CSAM to authorities.
  3. Updates statutory language about CSAM.
  4. Establishes a new national commission.

What does the EARN IT Act do?

(1) Creates incentives for technology companies.
Under current law, U.S.-based tech companies are obligated to report suspected CSAM to law enforcement only if they know is on their platforms. There is no requirement that they proactively search for or block illegal images and videos of child sex abuse, which means that this content often proliferates on social media platforms. The EARN IT Act would strip tech companies of any liability protection for alleged violations of civil and criminal laws about OSEC, incentivizing the sector to take proactive steps to identify and remove CSAM.

The reality is that children cannot be completely protected until tech companies take action. Consumers from all over the world use online platforms to access and perpetuate child sexual exploitation. Without action from tech companies to proactively disrupt, detect and remove this content, it is incredibly difficult for law enforcement to single-handedly identify, investigate, and prosecute the crimes.

To be clear: the EARN IT Act does not criminalize encryption or punish companies who offer encryption services. The bill explicitly dictates that the use of encryption services would not independently merit liability for online platforms. The EARN IT Act also does not open the door to censorship – its directives are narrowly tailored to online sexual exploitation of children, content that has already been declared illegal (18 U.S.C. 2252A).

(2) Strengthens requirements for tech companies to report suspected CSAM to the CyberTipline
Between 2020 and 2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children experienced a 47% increase in their CyberTipline reports, culminating in over 32 million reports of suspected online child sexual exploitation in 2022. The EARN IT Act would standardize the requirements for reporting suspected CSAM for tech companies.

Existing law is vague in providing guidance to platforms about what should be included in a report to the CyberTipline, which is operated by the National Center for Missing and Exploited (NCMEC). This ambiguity in the law has led to dramatic disparities across the industry – some platforms submit millions of reports annually, while others report only a couple hundred each year or none at all. The first step to addressing CSAM is reporting it – the EARN IT Act would mandate essential reporting requirements. It would also mandate the inclusion of key details in reports, such as the email address, IP address, or any other information that might help identify or locate an involved minor.

Further, the EARN IT Act would extend the window of time that tech companies must retain information about suspected abuse submitted to the CyberTipline. (By this point, the material has already been removed from public view.) Current requirements are insufficient for the sheer number of reports that law enforcement agencies must investigate. By the time investigators have the capacity to examine a potential case, the report evidence has often been completely deleted by the reporting company. The EARN IT Act would extend the retention period up to a year, a major respite for law enforcement.

(3) Updates statutory language.
Finally, the EARN IT Act would update language around online sexual exploitation of children to accurately reflect the nature of the crime. It would replace the term “child pornography” with “child sexual abuse material” throughout federal law to negate the notion that a child could ever consent to this exploitation. This change is more than superficial – it helps recognize the true nature of what survivors of this crime endure.

(4) Establishes a new national commission.
The EARN IT Act would create a new national commission charged with identifying tools and strategies to curtail online sexual exploitation of children. The commission would take a holistic approach to the issue – only three of the 19 members would be government officials. The rest would be a diverse collection of stakeholders, including survivors, prosecutors, civil rights and privacy experts, and tech company representatives. The commission would submit its recommendations to the Attorney General for due consideration, effecting significant change in how different sectors of society can protect children.

Who is sponsoring and co-sponsoring the EARN IT Act?

In the 118th Congress, the EARN IT Act was introduced on April 19, 2023, by Representatives Ann Wagner (R-MO) and Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) in the House, and by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) in the Senate. Since April 2023, the bill has accrued dozens of bipartisan co-sponsors.

View the full list of co-sponsors for S.1207 and H.R.2732.

What is the status of the EARN IT Act?

The EARN IT Act was unanimously advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 15, 2023, and now awaits a vote by the full Senate. In the House, it awaits consideration by the Judiciary Committee.

Who else supports the EARN IT Act?

Many organizations have expressed support for the EARN IT Act, including:

  • Child Rescue Coalition
  • Covenant House
  • Major Cities Chiefs Association
  • National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC)
  • National Children’s Alliance
  • National District Attorneys Association
  • PACT (formerly ECPAT-USA)
  • Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)
  • Rights4Girls
  • Shared Hope International

Critics of the bill have concerns about censorship or user privacy, but those fears are unfounded. This bill is simply ensuring that illegal content in the real world remains illegal online – and that violators of existing laws against CSAM are held accountable. The EARN IT Act does not give legislators or the private sector license to reimagine what constitutes free speech – it is protecting children and tech users across the world from the harmful effects of already illegal content posted online. The bill is clear that a company is only liable if they have participated in the propagation of CSAM – no other content is listed in the bill. The EARN IT Act’s focus is tailored strictly to CSAM and the bill will not result in the censorship of protected speech.

What can I do to support the EARN IT Act?

Policymakers, law enforcement officials, prosecutors, social workers, survivors & average citizens are all critical to ending online sexual exploitation of children. There isn’t one quick solution – but the EARN IT Act is a strong start. In fact, it is the most comprehensive child protection legislation introduced in Congress in decades.

Since IJM’s Advocacy Summit in October, multiple members of Congress have pledged their support for the EARN IT Act, signing on as co-sponsors. The bottom line: Advocacy works! Urge your members of Congress to support the EARN IT Act and stand with children around the world. (Have you already contacted your member of Congress? Share the campaign with five people you know!)

Learn more about the EARN IT Act:

Updated 2/7/2024

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