US Bill To Clamp Down On End-To-End Encryption

Credit: US Senate

US lawmakers intend to introduce bill in coming weeks that could clamp down on tech firms offering their users end-to-end encryption protection

The fight by US officials against tech firms offering end-to-end encryption has taken a potentially serious turn on Friday.

It has been reported that a bipartisan group of US lawmakers intend to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that could hurt tech firms’ ability to offer end-to-end encryption, two sources with knowledge of the matter told Reuters.

The aim of the bill (entitled “the Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019,” or the “EARN IT Act,”) is to prevent the distribution of child sexual abuse material on online platforms. The bill is sponsored by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal.

Section 230 liability

How the bill intends to do this is by making tech firms such as Google and Facebook liable for state prosecution and civil lawsuits.

It will achieve this by targetting a key immunity the tech firms have under federal law called Section 230.

To clarify, Section 230 says online companies cannot be treated as the publisher or speaker of the information they provide. This provision largely exempts these tech firms from liability involving content posted by users.

Earlier this week on Wednesday US Attorney General William Barr questioned whether major online platforms still need immunity from legal liability that has prevented them from being sued over the material their users post.

According to Reuters, the proposed bill threatens this key immunity unless companies comply with a set of “best practices,” which will be determined by a 15-member commission led by the Attorney General.

The sources told Reuters that the US tech industry fears these “best practices” will be used to condemn end-to-end encryption.

US pressure

Federal law enforcement agencies have long complained that such encryption hinders their investigations. Under current US laws, online platforms are exempted from letting law enforcement access their encrypted networks.

The proposed legislation provides a workaround to bypass that, the sources said.

In August 2019 the US Department of Justice reportedly pressured Facebook to break the encryption in its Messenger app, so law enforcement could listen to a suspect’s voice conversations in a criminal probe.

But the tech industry has long defended its right to offer users encryption.

WhatsApp messages have enjoyed end-to-end encryption since 2016 for example.

In October 2019 Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg defended his decision to encrypt the company’s messaging services, after an open letter was signed by the UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, US Attorney General Bill Barr, acting US Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan, and Australian Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton.

Last week Facebook also strongly defended its default use of end-to-end encryption for people’s messages.

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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