Catching virtual child abuse
Legislative efforts to limit online child pornography stir controversy
In 2021, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) processed 29.3 million reports of child sexual abuse material, including videos and images. The group now fields an average 80,000 daily reports on its cyber tip line. The majority of the reports were filed by a handful of tech companies—including Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat.
Advocates who fight online pornography, also known as child sex abuse material, say that too many tech companies are failing to detect, report, or remove such content. Lawmakers earlier this month advanced a bill, the EARN IT Act, to hold tech companies accountable to report abusive material. But opponents worry the bill would erode civil liberties.
Despite efforts to curb abusive material posted online, it has proliferated. In 1998, the cyber tip line run by NCMEC, a federally funded nonprofit, collected about 4,500 reports of child sexual exploitation. By 2014, the number of reports reached 1 million. That growth has intensified the debate over how best to safeguard young victims without eroding user privacy and free speech.
First introduced in 2020, the EARN IT Act—short for Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies—cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 10 with unanimous bipartisan support and backing from law enforcement, child welfare, and anti-trafficking groups.
At a Feb. 8 congressional briefing, NCMEC senior vice president and general counsel Yiota Souras said many tech companies are nonresponsive when victims or advocates request they remove exploitative content from their platforms. Meanwhile, online predators find loopholes or use encryption and anonymization to create digital hiding places, as a 2019 New York Times report found. (Tech companies are not legally required to look for child sexual abuse material, but if it is discovered, they must report it.)
The EARN IT Act would put tech companies at greater risk for lawsuits over posts containing child sexual abuse material. It would also establish a national 16-member commission including abuse survivors, law enforcement, and tech industry experts to determine best practices to confront the problem.
“The modern internet is infested with stomach-churning images of children who have been brutally assaulted and exploited, and who are haunted by a lifetime of pain after these photographs and videos are circulated online,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., the bill’s co-sponsor. “Millions of these horrifying images go unidentified and unreported … because there are so few consequences when those companies look the other way.”
Critics of the EARN IT Act, ranging from LGBT activists to libertarian groups, argue that scanning for abusive material could compromise user rights to privacy and encryption. Joe Mullin, a policy analyst for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the bill would “pave the way for a massive new surveillance system, run by private companies.”
One petition opposing the EARN IT Act has garnered nearly 600,000 signatures.
Apple faced similar backlash when it announced in August 2021 a feature to detect and report known child sexual abuse material to law enforcement. The company delayed the feature and subsequently removed mention of it from its child safety webpage in December, according to MacRumors. Apple’s newest update to its software includes a setting that warns U.S. users under age 18 before they send or receive a nude photo, a feature intended to combat online child sexual exploitation.
Jake Roberson, vice president and communications director at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), said the EARN IT Act encourages tech companies to take a proactive role in curbing exploitative content. He said many companies claim ignorance or immunity under Section 230, part of the Communications Decency Act that protects tech companies from liability for content posted by website and app users.
The NCOSE Law Center filed a federal lawsuit against Twitter in January on behalf of a teenager who learned at age 16 that sexually graphic videos of himself, obtained by an online predator using fraud and coercion when the boy was 13, had been posted on the social media platform. Twitter denied the teen’s and his mother’s requests to remove the videos, stating the content did not violate its policies. The videos accumulated 167,000 views before law enforcement officers convinced Twitter to take them down.
“We have a much bigger problem on our hands,” Roberson said. “The reality is the steps that have been implemented have not been done at a commensurate rate to the problem.”
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