fb-pixel Skip to main content

Congress, Justice take aim at tech, hoping to halt spread of child sexual exploitation online

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, is about to introduce a bill that essentially offers the industry an ultimatum: Take aggressive action against child exploitation or risk losing some of the long-standing legal protections. J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — US regulators are preparing to target anew Facebook, Google, and other tech giants this week, unveiling more efforts to combat online content that harms or abuses children — and hold Silicon Valley responsible for its spread.

The heightened activity in Washington reflects the government’s simmering frustration with Silicon Valley, along with a growing appetite to rethink decades-old federal laws that spare profitable, popular tech platforms from being held liable for dangerous content that goes viral on their services.

In Congress, Democrats and Republicans are banding together to introduce legislation that essentially offers the industry an ultimatum: Take aggressive, potentially controversial steps to thwart child sexual exploitation on the web, or risk losing some of the long-standing legal protections, known as Section 230.

Advertisement



The so-called Earn It Act bill from Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, and Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, is expected as soon as Wednesday with bipartisan support, according to three people familiar with the measure who requested anonymity since it has not been formally introduced. Spokespeople for the lawmakers declined to comment for this story.

At the Justice Department, meanwhile, US officials are set to unveil on Thursday a set of 11 ‘‘voluntary principles’’ that target child sexual exploitation, according to two additional sources and a copy of the invite. The proposal — crafted with the industry’s aid, and backed by leaders of five countries — calls on tech companies to ensure search, social-networking, video streaming, and chat tools aren’t havens for child predators, according to a copy obtained by the Post. The DOJ did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Silicon Valley companies including Facebook and Google share the US government’s goal of battling child pornography, human trafficking, and a wide array of other harmful content targeting minors. But they fear efforts to erode Section 230, which they view as fundamental to the web’s growth, critical for free expression, and essential for websites that need legal cover to police their own platforms in the first place.

Advertisement



The industry has grown especially apprehensive about lawmakers’ latest political salvo, fearing it is unworkable and could pave the way for the Justice Department and other law enforcement agents to burrow into their networks, devices, and services to aid their investigations. Doing so could undermine end-to-end encryption, security technology that makes it so that only the sender and recipient of a message can see its contents.

On Tuesday, Facebook aired early doubts about the bill before it had even been released. The fate of encryption is critical for the company, given that its messaging service, WhatsApp, is secured this way, and Facebook aims to deploy encryption further across its chat tools.

‘‘We share the EARN IT Act sponsors’ commitment to child safety and have made keeping children safe online a top priority by developing and deploying technology to thwart the sharing of child abuse material,’’ Facebook spokesman Thomas Richards said in a statement. ‘‘We’re concerned the EARN IT Act may be used to roll back encryption, which protects everyone’s safety from hackers and criminals and may limit the ability of American companies to provide the private and secure services that people expect.’’

Google did not immediately respond to request for comment.

The twin efforts — combined with growing apprehension among regulators about the unchecked power of many top tech companies — could set the stage for a major clash between Washington and Silicon Valley over the coming year.

Advertisement



Regulators in the United Kingdom, Australia, and a host of other countries recently have sought to require Facebook, Google, and other online services to spot and disable or remove abusive content quickly or face tough punishments. In the United States, however, Section 230 often prevents the government from holding tech giants accountable for problematic speech — and stymies web users from taking action on their own in the courts.

But Democrats and Republicans in recent years have expressed greater willingness to rethink and revise the immunity the law affords. So has the Justice Department, where Attorney General William Barr has begun a broad review of big tech that includes possible changes to Section 230.