Ah, politicians are once again engaging in a favorite past-time: fanning fears of massive child predator rings as a pretense to get rid of privacy. This time Lindsay Graham (Senator Sycophant) has sponsored the EARN IT Bill (S.3583 Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies). This bill established a commission to oversee internet groups and create legislation and “best practices” to supposedly reduce child sexual exploitation.
I am all for actual technologies which would identify and reduce actual childhood exploitation. Child sexual abuse and exploitation causes long-term, lasting harm for the person who was abused. Horrific things happen to children and they need to be stopped. However, our general lack of understanding of the method of child exploitation and how to solve the issue created plenty of room for politicians to remove privacy rights and attack adults engaged in appropriate sex education, awareness campaigns, and other activities which can legitimately reduce childhood exploitation.
The Current Landscape in the United States
Not every child is equally likely to be exploited and harmed. If you went by news reports, its pretty little white kids in rich families which are targeted. We do not live in a Liam Nissan thriller. The reality of who gets hurt is remarkably different.
The children most likely to be abused and exploited are:
- Children in the foster care or juvenile justice system
- Victims of child abuse at the hands of a trusted adult or parent
- Physically and cognitively disabled youth
It is correct that social medial platforms are used to recruit youth into sex trafficking and prostitution. This has long been the case. However, pimps and traffickers target run-aways, and children involved in foster care and the juvenile justice system because these children lack the adult support needed to keep them safe.
A precursor to children being targeted and abused by strangers is kids who have been targeted and abused by a parent or trusted adult. Attacking the problem at the social media recruitment level fails to address this.
Things we know reduce parental abuse of their children:
- Food Stamps and other financial safety net programs
- Access to mental health professionals
- Access to affordable healthcare
- Access to child care
- Age-appropriate sex education
Food stamps (SNAP Program) has been found to reduce parental stress. Having the basic resources to provide food for children and eat themselves, reduced stress in the household. Additionally, children who have enough food to eat daily perform better in school and attend school more regularly, meaning school authorities are more likely to pick up on problems at home.
The most likely people to abuse their children are people who were abused as kids. The key way to break this cycle is to get adults the physical and mental health treatment they need. For too many Americans, mental health care is not accessible. To be accessible means that the person can afford the insurance, copays, and time to see a therapist. Most mental health professionals work 9 to 5. For a parent with a job that does not have paid time off, accessing a health care professional can mean choosing between their job and their health.
Access to child care is also important. Parents need time away from their kids to work, attend to errands, and reduce stress. If a parent knows that the friend, family member or other person volunteering to provide child care is a risk for abuse but has no other options, some are left with a “pray for the best” attitude so that they can maintain a job. Providing affordable and accessible child care (which includes overnight child care for some parents) is also essential in reducing childhood abuse.
Adequate, age-appropriate sex education is the final piece here. Sex education which is either non-existent before middle-school or focused on abstinence can be incredibly harmful to children. If children do not know the words for body parts and have not be taught they they have a right to keep their bodies safe, they do not know that what is happening is wrong. The abuser can easily convince them that if they told someone what had happened to them, the child would be blamed and shamed.
Providing consent-based, age-appropriate sex ed means we empower our children to speak up when someone abuses them. This is also critical for cognitively disabled children. Eighty percent children with cognitive disabilities have experienced sexual abuse before they are 21. We do not teach children with cognitive disabilities about sexuality and do not provide them with a way to tell people what is happening to them.
The EARN IT act ignores all of this and jumps to reading your messages and emails as a solution.
Understanding the EARN IT Act
The EARN IT Act would establish a 19 person commission to create best practices and propose legislative changes to “reduce child sexual abuse.”
This commission is to be composed of (1) the Attorney General as the chair, (2) Homeland Security Secretary, and (3) Secretary of the FTC (4) 4 members appointed by the Majority Leader, (5) 4 members appointed by the Minority Leader, (6) 4 members appointed by the Speaker of the House (7) 4 members appointed my the Congressional Minority Leader. Sixteen of these members must have law enforcement, prosecution, or other legal system expereince. Four must be sex trafficking survivors Or work with groups to protect sex trafficked children. Two should have expereince with civil liberties and two should have technical expertise.
As someone who was the Executive Director of a state commission, let me break down what this means. The AG, Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Secretary of the FTC will send people in their stead (allowed by the bill). These three will completely dominate the discussion and the remaining members will bow to their will since these three members have significantly more political and financial power than the remaining members.
The technical experts will present what is and isn’t possible with current technology and that is about all they will contribute.
There will be no actual survivors appointed. Instead, the applicants for the “people involved in helping sex traffick survivors” will be largely comprised of religious organizations and organizations which promote purity culture as there is a very large number of organizations like this. Organizations which help survivors with legal defenses when they are prosecuted under prostitution laws (still legal in most states) and those who focus on providing education and outreach will be deemed “too liberal” or “too politically risky” to appoint.
In the end, this will be a committee focused largely on prosecution and running on stigmas and uniformed beliefs about what leads to child sexual exploitation.
The Scope of EARN IT
The EARN IT Act allows the commission to explore all options to “reduce child sex abuse.” The act fails to define this terminology, limit it in any way, and would replace “child pornography” with “child sex abuse” in more than a dozen federal agency laws and policies. There is a huge risk that “child sex abuse” will be treated like some SCOTUS members treat pornography “I know it when I see it.” Without a definition and limitations, the commission will be free to extend their reach as widely as they want.
This act allows the commission to propose best practices and law changes to require a social media platform to provide the decoding for end-to-end encrypted messages, to allow federal agencies to collect and decode any message sent on a social media platform, to catalogue any messages, images or other material related to searching for child exploitation (even if that material is irrelevant to the topic), and to keep databases of the identities of all involves (including minors) not limited to names, addresses, IP addresses, website information, emails, and other material. Basically, any message on any platform can be deemed “relevant” to a search of child exploitation and your information, the child’s information and all tangential posts, pictures, and messages can be catalogued and stored by a federal agency.
The act allows “all reasonable methods” to be used to identify the child “involved” in these communications. This means a government agency could “reasonably” use facial recognition software to identify your child and every image of them on the web. These images nd messages featuring your child could hen be legitimately catalogued and kept on file with government agencies for furher use.
Want to post that cute pick of your kids playing in the sprinklers or pool on Instagram? You just opened yourself up to the FBI, Homeland Security and local authorities tracking every post of yours on every social media platform; every image of your child on the internet (including their personal accounts), and more being held in a database and searched by multiple government agencies.
Will EARN IT Reduce Child Sexual Exploitation?
Some people are willing to sacrifice a massive number of privacy rights if it protects kids. I get that. I have three children under 18 in my life I worry about constantly. I would forgo a lot of privacy it I could guarantee they stay safe. This act provides no protection and a lot of risk.
The backers of this bill are looking for a justification to seize private communications without looking like they are against civil liberates. This commission could “suggest” legislation to “reduce child sex abuse” and Senators and Congresspeople could then easily frame it as “experts protecting kids.” What it is really is a bunch of prosecutors and purity culture acolytes providing a pretext to destroy privacy.
This act needs to be strongly opposed NOW.
Please write or call your federal representatives to oppose this bill.
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