- 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.”
Amanda Gorman Wows the Nation With “The Hill We Climb”
- Amanda Gorman, a 22-year-old poet, impressed the nation when she read “The Hill We Climb” at President Biden’s inauguration, making her the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history.
- Gorman’s said the Jan. 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol inspired her to focus on a message of hope, community, and healing in her poem.
- Big names like Oprah Winfrey, Anderson Cooper, Barack Obama, and Lin-Manuel Miranda have all praised her work.
Amanda Gorman Becomes Youngest Inaugural Poet
Inaugural poet Amanda Gorman wowed the nation on Wednesday as she spoke of healing, unity, hope, and what it means to be American while reading her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”
At 22-years-old Gorman is the youngest inaugural poet in the nation’s history. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she was the youth poet laureate of Los Angeles in 2014 at the age of 16. She then became the first national youth poet laureate in 2017.
Now, her books are topping Amazon’s Best Sellers list and they are not even scheduled to be released until the fall.
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden became a fan of Gorman after watching her give a reading at the Library of Congress. She then suggested that Gorman be a part of the ceremony.
“Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true: That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped That even as we tired, we tried,” Gorman recited during inauguration. “That we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat but because we will never again sow division.”
Like President Biden, Gorman has struggled with a speech impediment and has been open about her experience overcoming it. She actually used poetry as a tool to correct it. First, she used it as a way of expressing herself without having to speak. Then she used it to bring her poems to life.
“Once I arrived at the point in my life in high school, where I said, ‘you know what? Writing my poems on the page isn’t enough for me,” she told CBS News. “I have to give them breath, and life, I have to perform them as I am.’ That was the moment that I was able to grow past my speech impediment.”
What Inspired “The Hill We Climb”
Gorman said the inaugural committee gave her freedom and flexibility when it came to choosing what to write about. She was well on her way before the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those events then influenced her writing.
“It energized me even more to believe that much more firmly in a message of hope, community and healing. I felt like that was the type of poem that I needed to write and it was the type of poem that the country and the world needed to hear,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
That message came across clearly and the insurrection was depicted in part of “The Hill We Climb.”
“It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit. It’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy and this effort very nearly succeeded,” she said. “But while democracy can be periodically delayed it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust. For while we have our eyes on the future history has its eyes on us.”
Nation Impressed by Gorman
“Wow…Wow, I just, wow you’re awesome,” Cooper said when closing his interview with her. “I am so transfixed.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda also cheered Gorman on. “The Hill We Climb” notably references a line of scripture that appears in a “Hamilton” song. Gorman also said she used to sing the song “Aaron Burr, Sir” to help her say her R sounds and correct her speech impediment.
“I have never been prouder to see another young woman rise!” Oprah Winfrey wrote. “Brava Brava Amanda Gorman! Maya Angelou is cheering—and so am I.”
Winfrey also gave Gorman a ring with a caged bird on it—a reference to the famous Angelou poem— which Gorman wore during the inauguration.
Actor Mark Ruffalo joined the onslaught of praise, saying that her words will lead the nation.
Former President Barack Obama echoed that idea as well, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Gorman promised to run for president one day.
See what others are saying: (CBS News) (New York Times) (Los Angeles Times)
SAT Drops Subject Tests and Optional Essay Section
- The College Board will discontinue SAT subject tests effective immediately and will scrap the optional essay section in June.
- The organization cited the coronavirus pandemic as part of the reason for accelerating these changes.
- Regarding subject tests, the College Board said the other half of the decision rested on the fact that Advanced Placement tests are now more accessible to low-income students and students of color, making subject tests unnecessary.
- It also said it plans to launch a digital version of the SAT in the near future, despite failing to implement such a plan last year after a previous announcement.
College Board Ends Subject Tests and Optional Essay
College Board announced Tuesday that it will scrap the SAT’s optional essay section, as well as subject tests.
Officials at the organization cited the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason for these changes, saying is has “accelerated a process already underway at the College Board to simplify our work and reduce demands on students.”
The decision was also made in part because Advanced Placement tests, which College Board also administers, are now available to more low-income students and students of color. Thus, College Board has said this makes SAT subject tests unnecessary.
While subject tests will be phased out for international students, they have been discontinued effective immediately in the U.S.
Regarding the optional essay, College Board said high school students are now able to express their writing skills in a variety of ways, a factor which has made the essay section less necessary.
With several exceptions, it will be discontinued in June.
The Board Will Implement an Online SAT Test
In its announcement, College Board also said it plans to launch a revised version of the SAT that’s aimed at making it “more flexible” and “streamlined” for students to take the test online.
In April 2020, College Board announced it would be launching a digital SAT test in the fall if schools didn’t reopen. The College Board then backtracked on its plans for a digital test in June, before many schools even decided they would remain closed.
According to College Board, technological challenges led to the decision to postpone that plan.
For now, no other details about the current plan have been released, though more are expected to be revealed in April.
See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (The New York Times)
Biden To Block Trump’s Order Lifting COVID-19 Travel Ban
- President Trump issued an executive order Monday lifting a ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.
- Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when the CDC will start requiring all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
- The move was cheered by the travel industry; however, incoming White House press secretary Jennifer Psaki warned that Biden’s administration does not intend to lift the travel restrictions.
Trump Order End To COVID-19 Travel Ban
President Donald Trump issued an executive order Monday ending his administration’s ban on travelers from the Schengen area of Europe, the U.K., Ireland, and Brazil.
That ban was put in place last spring in an effort to curb the spread of coronavirus in the U.S. In his announcement, however, Trump said the policy will no longer be needed starting Jan. 26, when new rules from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention go into effect.
Starting that day, the CDC will require all passengers from abroad to present proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a flight.
The recommendation to lift the ban reportedly came from Alex Azar, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. According to Trump’s proclamation, “the Secretary reports high confidence that these jurisdictions will cooperate with the United States in the implementation of CDC’s January 12, 2021, order and that tests administered there will yield accurate results.”
It’s worth noting that the ban will stay in place for travelers from Iran and China. Still, Trump’s announcement was generally cheered by members of the travel industry who have been pushing to lift the ban and require preflight testing instead.
Biden To Block Trump’s Order
Soon after the news broke, the incoming White House press secretary for President-elect Joe Biden, Jennifer Psaki, warned that Biden would block Trump’s order.
“With the pandemic worsening, and more contagious variants emerging around the world, this is not the time to be lifting restrictions on international travel,” she wrote on Twitter.
“On the advice of our medical team, the Administration does not intend to lift these restrictions on 1/26. In fact, we plan to strengthen public health measures around international travel in order to further mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” she added.
With that, it seems unlikely that Trump’s order will actually take effect.
It’s also worth noting that this is one of many executive orders Trump has issued just before inauguration day.
Some of these orders could soon be overturned once Biden takes office Wednesday. Biden is also expected to roll out his own wave of executive orders in his first 10 days as president.