If you’re not aware of them, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is one of the few organizations actively fighting for freedom of communication in today’s media, especially the Internet. They’ve made the unearthing, publicizing, and combating of threats to communications freedom and privacy their sole priority. They’re very good at it.
So when the EFF publicizes a new threat, we should pay attention:
A group of lawmakers led by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) have re-introduced the EARN IT Act, an incredibly unpopular bill from 2020 that was dropped in the face of overwhelming opposition. Let’s be clear: the new EARN IT Act would pave the way for a massive new surveillance system, run by private companies, that would roll back some of the most important privacy and security features in technology used by people around the globe. It’s a framework for private actors to scan every message sent online and report violations to law enforcement. And it might not stop there. The EARN IT Act could ensure that anything hosted online—backups, websites, cloud photos, and more—is scanned.
The bill empowers every U.S. state or territory to create sweeping new Internet regulations, by stripping away the critical legal protections for websites and apps that currently prevent such a free-for-all—specifically, Section 230. The states will be allowed to pass whatever type of law they want to hold private companies liable, as long as they somehow relate their new rules to online child abuse.
The goal is to get states to pass laws that will punish companies when they deploy end-to-end encryption, or offer other encrypted services. This includes messaging services like WhatsApp, Signal, and iMessage, as well as web hosts like Amazon Web Services. We know that EARN IT aims to spread the use of tools to scan against law enforcement databases because the bill’s sponsors have said so. In a “Myths and Facts” document distributed by the bill’s proponents, it even names the government-approved software that they could mandate (PhotoDNA, a Microsoft program with an API that reports directly to law enforcement databases).
Please read the whole article. (Try to stay calm during and after the ordeal.) So you thought the invasions of digital privacy would halt with the discovery of the NSA’s massive call-recording setup, eh? Think again.
Note that the EARN IT bill has support both from Democrats and from Republicans. Despite its plain unConstitutionality and its apparent unpopularity the first time around, it appears ready for a rematch.
EARN IT should be a wake-up call for anyone who’s assumed that the Republicans are reliable friends of freedom and Constitutional government. The indications are that the GOP is as interested in these new surveillance powers as the Democrats. Many will scratch their heads over this, though the underlying dynamic appears plain enough.
Knowledge of what people are thinking and saying is valuable to the maintenance of power generally. This is especially true today, when any comment can result in being besieged by the militants of “cancel culture.” (Anyone who doubts this should consult James Watson, Lawrence Summers, and Gina Carano.) Don’t imagine that the Establishment Right is less interested than the Left in such an ability. Just now, the GOP looks set to regain control of Congress; the ability to peer into anyone’s communications stream would allow themselves to cement themselves into Congressional hegemony. The Democrats are probably thinking that that ability could help them to maintain their grip on power, as well. That one or the other must be mistaken doesn’t really matter.
In our post-Constitutional era, gambits such as EARN IT are beyond enumeration. Everyone in politics is looking for a “wonder weapon” the possession of which would guarantee enduring dominance in Washington. What usually retards them is suspicion. When the Democrats propose a new power for the federal government, the Republicans will normally suspect their motives and form a wall against it. The same is true with the parties reversed. But with some proposed powers, such as those in EARN IT, both can take an interest, especially when control of Congress appears up for grabs.
Just as the repeal of Prohibition didn’t do away with federal oversight of alcoholic beverages, should EARN IT be enacted and signed by whoever is sitting in the Oval Office, the power it creates will never, ever go away. Both parties would find it too useful. What remains of communications privacy will vanish. Surveillance America would be here at last. And of course, it would all be “for the children.”
Say, how about a bill that would make proposing new federal powers “for the children” a capital crime? I could get behind that one.