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Experts Call EARN IT Act a Threat to Free Speech and Encryption

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  • Senators proposed a controversial piece of legislation called the EARN IT Act, which is meant to protect children from online sexual exploitation. 
  • A major part of the bill involves Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes sure internet companies are not liable for illegal content posted by users and is seen as a staple of the first amendment online. Currently, companies are automatically granted these protections, but under the EARN IT Act, they would have to earn them.
  • To earn them, companies would have to meet guidelines set up by a committee which would include Attorney General William Barr. Barr has previously made comments that lead experts to worry he would work to eliminate end-to-end encryption, which helps keep online conversations private. 
  • Those who support the bill think it will keep kids safe, but experts fear a threat to digital privacy.

What is the EARN IT Act?

As the coronavirus has largely dominated the news cycle, a controversial bill that could have major implications for encryption and free speech online has made its way to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Called the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, or the EARN IT Act, the bill aims to protect children from online sexual exploitation. Though, the means in which it does so has raised eyebrows.

The EARN IT Act was introduced by Senators Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Josh Hawley (R-MO), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA). It deals with Section 230, a controversial part of the Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 protects any “interactive computer service,” like an app or social media site, from being held liable if one of its users posts something illegal. Exceptions are made for cases like federal crimes, copyright, and things related to sex-work.

Some see it as a staple for digital free speech since it means that social media companies are less likely to heavily moderate posts. But others think it gives these companies too much wiggle room and broad power in allowing potentially harmful content up. Because of this, Section 230 has long been the subject of debate.

Under the EARN IT Act, internet outlets would not automatically be granted Section 230 protections, instead, they would have to earn them. According to the bill, in order to earn the protections, websites and companies would have to meet standards set up by a newly made National Commission on Online Child Exploitation Prevention. This Commission would have over a dozen members, including the Attorney General. 

Potential Threat to Encryption

The presence of the Attorney General is what makes some free speech advocates worried. Attorney General William Barr has made comments slanted against end-to-end encryption, which protects data and privacy by ensuring that only the parties involved in communications can read messages being shared.

“Predators often use anonymous or false personas, even in the most innocuous of settings, like online children’s games. They also communicate using virtually unbreakable encryption,” he said in early March. “A suspicious individual interacting with children at a real-world arcade is easier to detect than a predator lurking in the digital world…There is too much at stake.”

“We are also addressing child exploitation in our efforts on lawful access and in analyzing the impact of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on incentives for platforms to address such crimes and the availability of civil remedies to the victims,” Barr added.

This was not the first time we have seen Barr sort of combat tech companies and encryption. In October, BuzzFeed obtained a letter Barr sent to Mark Zuckerberg asking him to halt plans for end-to-end encryption on Facebook.

The EARN IT Act does not ever specifically mention encryption, but according to Lindsey Barrett, a staff attorney at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation Communications and Technology Clinic, it does not have to.

“When you’re talking about a bill that is structured for the attorney general to give his opinion and have decisive influence over what the best practices are, it does not take a rocket scientist to concur that this is designed to target encryption,” she told CNET.

This puts tech companies in a tricky position: losing Section 230 protections and potentially facing severe legal ramifications, or saying good buy to their current method of end-to-end encryption and privacy on their platform.

Support for Bill

When testimonies were read on March 11, many voiced support for the bill. One mother, identified as Nicole, said her children experienced sexual exploitation online and spoke on behalf of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. 

“I am hopeful that the EARN IT Act can get companies to be more responsible and protect children,” she said. “Companies that refuse to step up should be punished under our legal system.”

“As a mother – as a human – I cannot fathom a society that places anything above the safety of our kids,” Nicole added. 

Sen. Blumenthal has also given his words of support numerous times. 

“Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility,” Blumenthal said while introducing the legislation in early March. “Companies that fail to comport with basic standards that protect children from exploitation have betrayed the public trust granted them by this special exemption. Online platforms’ near complete immunity from legal responsibility is a privilege – they have to earn it – and that’s what our bipartisan bill requires.”

Criticism of EARN IT Act

On the other hand, some leaders in the Senate were very critical of the EARN IT Act. 

“This bill is a transparent and deeply cynical effort by a few well-connected corporations and the Trump Administration to use child sexual abuse to their political advantage, the impact to free speech and the security and privacy of every single American be damned,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in a statement.

Wyden also said he would offer his own legislation that he believes would more effectively combat the issue of minors being digitally exploited.

Whistleblower Edward Snowden also warned against it. “There is nothing these people won’t do to stamp out the idea of a private conversation,” he wrote on Twitter. 

In a statement, Gaurav Laroia, the Senior Policy Counsel for Free Press Action, said the bill has good intentions, but a dangerous outcome.

“The drafters of this bill obviously want to address some real harms, yet their solutions could radically change the way we communicate online,” Laroia wrote. “The legislation sets up the U.S. government as the arbiter of all communications and conversations that happen on the internet — a terrible idea in any instance.”

See what others are saying: (The Verge) (Wired) (CNET)

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Conservatives are Mad at “Woke” Xbox for Minor Climate-Related Updates

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The fury comes after Xbox announced it was slightly altering existing consoles to better utilize and save energy.


Same War, New Battlefield

Mere days after M&M canceled their “spokescandies” due to backlash from the right, led largely by Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, conservatives have found a new front for their ongoing culture war: Xbox.

Carlson spent months complaining that small character redesigns were “woke” because they made the animated anthropomorphized M&M’s — in his own words — “less sexy.” His campaign finally proved successful on Monday when the company announced it would be doing away with the spokescandies and replacing them with actress Maya Rudolph.

Conservatives, now facing a sudden dearth of non-issues to complain about, quickly found a new issue to rage against. Xbox announced in a blog post earlier this month that it is making minor updates to lower its environmental impact as part of an effort to reach Microsoft’s goal of being carbon-negative by 2030.

Now, instead of having an Xbox wake up to update games, apps, and software during random times of the night, it will do that at a time of night when a user’s local energy grid is generating the most power it can from renewable sources. 

Xbox also said it would automatically update some older consoles to a power-saving mode that aims to reduce electricity consumption when it is turned off — a feature that is already the default on newer consoles.

According to The Verge, the only difference for users is that an Xbox in power-saving mode takes around 15 seconds to boot up instead of doing so immediately as the console does in “sleep” mode. The change is a small price to pay for what the outlet described as “significant” energy savings.

Xbox Under Fire

To many leading conservative voices, the minimal shifts were just another example of “woke” culture. 

While discussing M&M’s spokescandies Tuesday morning, “Fox and Friends” co-host Ainsley Earhardt brought up Xbox’s new changes with Fox radio host Jimmy Failla.

“So Xbox has also announced that they’re going woke too, you know, because of climate change,” Earhardt said.

“I mean, it’s crazy what they’re doing, but we understand what this is. It’s not that it’s actually going to offset emissions, okay — the level of reduction is infinitesimal,”  Failla claimed, without evidence. “But they’re trying to recruit your kids into climate politics at an earlier age; make them climate conscious now.”

“Yeah, I didn’t think of that — you’re right, they’re going after the children,” Earhardt agreed, despite the fact that internal data from Microsoft shows just around 10% of Xbox owners are under the age of 18.

Other prominent conservatives also did their part to bait Americans into anger on social media, including America’s Foundation, which posted a tweet stating that “the woke brigade is after video games.”

The post linked an article from the right-wing website TheBlaze, which asserted that “Xbox will force gamers to power down to fight climate change.”  That, however, is false — Xbox has said users can switch back and change the settings any time they want

Still, top lawmakers continued to share the article and spread its false claims, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.).

“First gas stoves, then your coffee, now they’re gunning for your Xbox,” he wrote in the post, which was flagged by Twitter and given an “added context” warning.

The same warning, however, was not placed in a very similar post by Rep. Troy Nehls (R-Tx.), who also shared the article.

“They want to take your guns. They want to take your gas stoves. And now they want to take your Xbox. What’s next?” he wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The Daily Beast) (VICE)

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Washington State Launches Investigation Into Abuse at Private Special Ed. Schools

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Allegations include staff kicking a fourth-grader and dragging a child with autism around by his leg.


Abuse Allegations

Washington State’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has launched an investigation into a system of private schools for kids with disabilities after ProPublica and the Seattle Times reported on allegations of abuse.

The series of articles focused on Northwest School of Innovative Learning (NWSOIL). NWSOIL is a set of private schools that serve 500 Washington public school students with serious disabilities. ProPublica and the Seattle Times found years of complaints from parents and school districts against NWSOIL alleging abuse, overuse of isolation rooms, and unqualified aides teaching instead of certified professionals.

One district claimed NWSOIL staff kicked a fourth-grader. Another alleged that a child with autism was dragged around by his thigh.

Many former NWSOIL employees also claim that they were pressured by their parent company to to enroll more students and skimp on basic resources, like staffing.

Investigation Launched

In a seven-page letter, OSPI reminded NWSOIL of its authority to revoke or suspend a school’s approval, meaning that it could shut NWSOIL down. 

“Given the serious nature of the allegations made in the articles, OSPI is examining what, if any, actions need to be taken with respect to Northwest SOIL’s approval to contract with Washington school districts,” Tania May, assistant superintendent for special education at OSPI, wrote in the letter.

OSPI has demanded any records of mistreatment, maltreatment, abuse, or neglect as well as documents pertaining to restraint or isolation of students and calls to the police. They are also seeking information about the student-to-teacher ratio and staff qualifications. 

In the letter, OSPI claims that all of this was previously unknown to them as well as to police, Child Protective Services, and local school districts. They are asking NWSOIL for an explanation as to why the allegations were not reported. 

NWSOIL defended itself in a public statement.

“Use of restraints and seclusion are always used as a last response when a student is at imminent risk of hurting themselves or others, it said. “We strongly deny any allegation that we understaff and/or pressure staff to increase admissions in order to maximize profits.” 

Washington state representatives are considering a reform bill that will give them more oversight on the publicly funded system of private special education schools. 

In this legislation, OSPI and at least one district that sends students to this program would be required to visit before approving the contract. It would also standardize district agreements with programs like NWSOIL, including financial safeguards to make sure funds are being used appropriately.

See the full series: (ProPublica) (The Seattle Times)

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Mass Shootings in Half Moon Bay, Oakland Rock California

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Just since Saturday, at least 19 people have been killed and 17 have been injured in mass shootings in California.


California Sees Third Attack in Under a Week

Two California localities experienced separate mass shootings Monday, just days after an attacker killed 11 and injured nine others in a suburb of Los Angeles.

The first of the most recent shootings took place in Half Moon Bay, a small coastal town about 30 miles outside of San Francisco, where a gunman killed seven and critically injured an eighth at two different locations.

According to authorities, police were dispatched to the first location around 2:20 pm and found four people shot to death and a fifth victim also suffering gunshot wounds. Shortly after, three more people were found dead at another site nearby.

About two hours later, police discovered the suspect in his car in the parking lot of a San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office substation with a semiautomatic handgun in the vehicle that officials later confirmed he had purchased legally.

Sheriff Christina Corpus said the man was taken into custody “without incident” and is “fully cooperating.” He has been identified as a 66-year-old Half Moon Bay resident of Asian descent.

Currently, the gunman’s motive is unknown, but the Sheriff told reporters Monday that both of the locations he targeted were nurseries, and it has since been reported that they were mushroom farms.

“All evidence we have points to this being an instance of workplace violence. The Mountain Mushroom Farm, the first location, is where the subject was employed,” Corpus said in a press conference Tuesday, though she added that, so far, the “only known connection between the victims and the suspect is that they may have been coworkers.”

As of writing, it remains unclear why he targeted the second location. A mushroom farm called Concord Farms has told reporters that it was the site of the second shooting — which a law enforcement official confirmed to The Washington Post.

In a statement to the media, a spokesperson said the farm had “no past knowledge” of the alleged gunman or his possible motives. Little has been released about the victims, though Corpus said Tuesday they were all adults and a “mixture of Asian and Hispanic descent,” some of whom were migrants. 

Authorities had previously stated that, because people both live and work on the farms, children were among those who witnessed the shooting. However, on Tuesday, one official walked that back and said while children were indeed in the vicinity, police do not have information about specific witnesses.

Just hours after the violence in Half Moon Bay, seven people were injured, and one other was killed during a shooting at a gas station in Oakland. Very little has been reported about the incident, but police have said that the shooting was “between several individuals.”

Renewed Calls for Gun Control

Californians continue to reel from the rapid succession of mass shootings in a state known for its strict gun control laws.

According to Everytown for Gun Safety, a nonprofit that advocates against gun violence, the state ranks No. 1 in the country for gun law strength. An analysis led by the organization found that California has the sixth-lowest rate of gun ownership and the eighth-lowest gun death rate.

Many of California’s top lawmakers have argued that the state’s relatively low gun violence statistics emphasize the need for more federal regulations.

“The Second Amendment’s becoming a suicide pact,” Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) told CBS News in an interview.

“We’ll continue to find whatever loopholes we can and continue to lead the national conversation on gun safety reform. And the data bares out. It works. It saves lives,” he continued. “California’s 37% lower than the death rate of the rest of the nation, and yet, with all that evidence, no one on the other side seems to give a damn. I can’t get anything done in Congress.”

Following the Monterey Park shooting, U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Ca.), alongside other Democratic colleagues, introduced two gun control bills in the upper chamber. The first would ban assault weapons, while the second aims to raise the minimum age to purchase assault weapons from 18 to 21.

President Joe Biden quickly threw his support behind the measures, urging Congress to pass them.

“The majority of the American people agree with this commonsense action,” he said in a statement Monday. “There can be no greater responsibility than to do all we can to ensure the safety of our children, our communities and our nation.”

Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murders, suspected mass murderers, or those accused of committing violent crimes who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.

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