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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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Biden to Mandate COVID Vaccines for Federal Workers as CDC Changes Masking Guidance

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News of the efforts came on the same day that the U.S. reported more than 100,000 new daily COVID cases for the first time since February.


Federal Vaccine Mandate

President Joe Biden will announce Thursday that all federal employees must get vaccinated against COVID-19 or consent to strict testing and other safety precautions, White House officials told reporters Tuesday.

Earlier in the day, Biden said he was considering the requirement but did not provide any more information.

While the officials also said the details are still being hashed out, they did note that the policy would be similar to ones recently put in place by California and New York City, which respectively required state and city workers to get the jab or submit to regular testing.

Also on Tuesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated their guidelines to recommend that Americans who live in areas “of substantial or high transmission,” as well as all students and teachers, wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status.

Delta Causes Spikes, But Vaccines Still Prove Effective

The renewed COVID mitigation efforts come as the delta variant is driving massive surges all over the country.

Coronavirus cases have quadrupled throughout July, jumping from a weekly average of 11,799 on the first day of the month to 63,248 on Tuesday, according to The New York Times tracker. Tuesday also saw new daily infections topping 100,000 for the first time since February, with more than 108,000 reported, per The Times.

While the vast majority of new infections are among people who have not been vaccinated, there have also been increasing reports of breakthrough cases in people who have received the jab. 

Those cases, however, do not mean that the vaccines are not effective. 

No vaccine prevents 100% of infections. Health officials have said time and time again that the jabs are intended to prevent severe disease and death, and they are doing just that.

According to the most recent data for July 19, the CDC reported that only 5,914 of the more than 161 million Americans who have gotten the vaccine were hospitalized or died from COVID-19 — a figure that represents 0.0036% of vaccinated people.

While safety precautions may be recommended for some people who have received the vaccine, many media narratives have overstated the role breakthrough cases play in the recent spikes. As New York Magazine explains, it is imperative to understand these new mask recommendations are not happening because the vaccine is not effective, but because not enough people are getting the vaccine.

“Because breakthrough infections have so often made the news due to their novelty, that can create a perception of more cases than are actually happening — particularly without more robust tracking of the actual cases to provide context,” the outlet wrote.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (CNBC)

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Wisconsin Police Deny Planting Evidence in Viral Video, Release Their Own Body Cam Footage

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The footage police released shows that during a search, officers found a corner tear from a plastic bag inside a backseat passenger’s pocket. An officer then discarded it into the car after determining that it was empty.


Viral Video Appears To Show Officer Planting Evidence

The Caledonia Police Department in Wisconsin has responded to a viral cell phone video that appears to show an officer planting a small plastic baggie inside of a car during a traffic stop.

The now-viral footage was posted to Facebook by a man who goes by GlockBoy Savoo.

The user, who also filmed the clip, wrote in his post’s caption that the officer did this “just to get a reason to search the car” and said the cop didn’t know he was being recorded by the passenger.

Source: Facebook/ GlockBoy Savoo

Police Shut Down Accusations With Their Own Footage

After that video spread across social media, many were outraged, calling the Caledonia police dirty for seemingly planting evidence. All the outrage eventually prompted the department to announce an investigation Saturday.

Within hours, the department provided an update, claiming that officers didn’t actually plant any evidence or do anything illegal.

Police shared a lengthy summary of events, along with two body camera clips from the incident. That statement explained that the driver of the vehicle was pulled over for going 63 in a 45mph zone.

Two passengers in the backseat who were then spotted without seatbelts were asked to identify themselves and step out of the car. During a search of one passenger’s pockets, an officer pulled out “an empty corner tear” from a plastic baggie.

Police claim the corner tear did not contain any illegal substances, though they said this type of packaging is a common method for holding illegal drugs.

In one body cam clip, an officer can be heard briefly questioning the backseat passenger about the baggie. Then, that piece of plastic gets handed off to different officers who also determined it as empty before the officer in the original viral video discarded it into the back of the car.

The officer can also be seen explaining where the plastic came from to the passenger recording him.

“Aye, bro you just threw that in here!” the front seat passenger says, as heard in his version of the events.

“Yeah, cause it was in his pocket and I don’t want to hold onto it. It’s on their body cam that they took it off of him…I’m telling you where it came from, so. It’s an empty baggie at the moment too, so,” the officer replies.

The department went on to explain that while it would discourage officers from discarding items into a citizen’s car, this footage proves that evidence was not planted.

Authorities also noted that no arrests were made in this incident and the driver was the only one issued a citation for speeding. The statement added that since four officers were present at the scene, police have more than six hours of footage to review but they promised to release the footage in full in the near future.

See what others are saying: (Heavy)(CBS 58) (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

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Medical Groups, Local Leaders Push for Healthcare Workers and Public Employees To Get Vaccinated

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The move comes as COVID cases have nearly quadrupled in the last month due to the rapid spread of the highly infectious delta variant.


Increased Calls for Mandatory Vaccinations in Certain Sectors

More than 50 of America’s largest medical groups representing millions of healthcare workers issued a statement Monday calling for employers of all health and long-term care providers to require mandatory COVID-19 vaccinations.

The groups, which included the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, and 55 others, cited contagious new variants — including delta — and low vaccination rates.

“Vaccination is the primary way to put the pandemic behind us and avoid the return of stringent public health measures,” they wrote.

The call to action comes as new COVID cases have almost quadrupled during the month of July, jumping from just around 13,000 infections a day at the beginning of this month to more than 50,000.

While the vast majority of new infections and hospitalizations are among those who have not received the vaccines, many healthcare workers remain unvaccinated. According to data collected by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, over 38% of nursing home staff were not fully vaccinated as of July 11. 

An analysis by WebMD and Medscape Medical News found that around 25% of hospital workers who were in contact with patients had not been vaccinated by the end of May when vaccinations became widely available.

In addition to calls for medical professionals to get vaccinated, some local leaders have also begun to impose mandates for public employees as cases continue spiking.

Last month, San Francisco announced that it was requiring all city workers to get vaccinated. Also on Monday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said that all municipal employees — including police officers and teachers — must either get the jab or agree to weekly testing by the time school starts in September.

Dr. Fauci Says U.S. Officials Are Considering Revising Mask Guidance for Vaccinated People

Numerous top U.S. health officials have applauded efforts by local leaders to mitigate further spread of the coronavirus, including the nation’s top infectious disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, who confirmed Sunday that federal officials are actively considering whether to revise federal masking guidelines to recommend that vaccinated Americans wear face coverings in public settings.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said people who are vaccinated do not need to mask in public. Although that was a non-binding recommendation, many states and cities that had not already lifted restrictions on masking began to do so shortly after.

But now, local leaders in areas seeing big spikes have begun reimposing mask mandates — even for those who are vaccinated — including major counties like Los Angeles and St. Louis.

In his remarks Sunday, Fauci also emphasized that, despite claims from many conservatives, those efforts are in line with the federal recommendations, which leave space for local leaders to issue their own rules.

While Fauci and other top U.S. public health officials have encouraged local governments to take action, Republican lawmakers in several states are taking steps to limit the ability of local leaders and public health officials to take certain mitigation measures.

According to the Network for Public Health Law, at least 15 state legislatures have passed or are considering bills to limit the legal authority of public health agencies — and that does not even include unilateral action taken by governors.

Some of the leaders of states suffering the biggest spikes have banned local officials from imposing their own mask mandates, like Arkansas, which has the highest per capita cases in the country right now, as well as Florida, which currently ranks third.

Notably, some of the laws proposed or passed by Republicans could go beyond just preventing local officials from trying to mitigate surges in COVID cases and may have major implications for other public health crises.

For example, according to The Washington Post, a North Dakota law that bans mask mandates applies to other breakouts — even tuberculosis — while a new Montana law also bars the use of quarantine for people who have been exposed to an infectious disease but have not yet tested positive.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (The Guardian)

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