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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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Donald Trump and Eldest Three Children Hit With Fraud Lawsuit From New York AG

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AG Letitia James says that the former president “falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself.” 


Lawsuit Filed Against Trump 

New York Attorney General Letitia James announced on Wednesday that she filed a civil lawsuit against former president Donald Trump and his three eldest children over allegations that they fraudulently inflated asset valuations within the Trump Organization.

Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and Ivanka Trump are all listed alongside their father in the lawsuit. Executives Jeffrey McConney and Allen Weisselberg, the latter of whom recently pled guilty to tax crimes, are also listed alongside other Trump businesses. 

“Donald Trump, with the help of his children…and senior executives at the Trump Organization, falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to induce banks to lend money to the Trump Organization on more favorable terms than would otherwise have been available to the company, to satisfy continuing loan covenants, to induce insurers to provide insurance coverage for higher limits and at lower premiums, and to gain tax benefits, among other things,”  a press release announcing the lawsuit claimed. 

The Attorney General’s office claims that between 2011 and 2021, Trump and the Trump Organization made 200 false and misleading claims about asset values on annual financial statements.

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in a State Supreme Court in Manhattan. 

“The complaint demonstrates that Trump falsely inflated his net worth by billions of dollars to unjustly enrich himself and to cheat the system, thereby cheating all of us,” James said while announcing the complaint. 

Her office is seeking to permanently ban Trump and his children from serving as an officer or director in any New York corporation and to bar Trump and his organization from entering into any New York real estate acquisitions for five years. The office is also seeking to recover $250 million in penalty payments, among other forms of relief. 

 The Office of the Attorney General has also referred the matter to the federal attorneys in New York and to the IRS for criminal investigation. 

“There aren’t two sets of laws for people in this nation: former presidents must be held to the same standards as everyday Americans,” James added in a statement on social media. 

“Trump’s crimes are not victimless,” she continued. “When the well-connected and powerful break the law to get more money than they are entitled to, it reduces resources available to working people, small businesses, and taxpayers.”

Trump Allegedly Inflated Key Assets

According to James’ release, Trump “made known through Mr. Weisselberg that he wanted his net worth on his statements to increase every year.”

“And the statements were the vehicle by which his net worth was fraudulently inflated by billions of dollars year after year,” the release continued. 

Among the assets Trump and his organization allegedly inflated was the Trump Tower Triplex, an apartment Trump allegedly claimed was 30,000 square feet when it is just around 11,000 square feet. Because of its ballooned size, the property was valued at $327 million in 2015, roughly three times as much as the sole apartment in New York City to ever sell for over $100 million at the time. 

For further comparison, the highest sale for a listing in Trump Tower at the time was only $16 million. 

Trump also allegedly claimed Mar-a-Lago was valued as high as $739 million based on the “false premise” that the property could be developed and sold for residential use. The lawsuit claims that Trump actually signed deeds donating those rights, limiting the property’s use to a social club. James and her office claim its value would fall closer to $75 million. 

Inflated Clauations Cannot Be “Excused”

“The inflated asset valuations in the Statements cannot be brushed aside or excused as merely the result of exaggeration or good faith estimation about which reasonable real estate professionals may differ,”  the lawsuit states, adding that instead, they are the result of improper methodology intentionally meant to falsely boost Trump’s net worth. 

The investigation into Trump’s alleged fraud began nearly three years ago, and the former president has repeatedly called it a politically motivated witch hunt. His attorney, Alina Habba, doubled down on that rhetoric in a statement Wednesday. 

“Today’s filing is neither focused on the facts nor the law – rather, it is solely focused on advancing the Attorney General’s political agenda,” Habba said. “We are confident that our judicial system will not stand for this unchecked abuse of authority, and we look forward to defending our client against each and every one of the Attorney General’s meritless claims.”

For his part, Trump has blasted the lawsuit on Truth Social, calling James a “fraud” and a “crime-fighting disaster.”

Trump previously tried to impede the probe but was ultimately ordered by a judge to sit for a deposition and turn over subpoenaed documents. Reports say he pled the fifth hundreds of times during his deposition. 

See what others are saying: (Bloomberg) (The Washington Post) (Reuters)

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Hurricane Fiona Causes “Catastrophic” Damage in Puerto Rico, Leaving Many Without Power

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While power has been restored to some, more than a million remain without it as continued rainfall, flooding, and landslides are expected to cause further damage across the island.


Hurricane Fiona Wreaks Havoc

Hurricane Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico Sunday, bringing heavy rains, flooding, and landslides, while also knocking out power for the entire island and killing at least one person.

Photos and videos posted on social media show floodwaters consuming major streets and engulfing cars. Some pictures show an entire bridge flooded, making it impassible. Other footage shows a different bridge entirely uprooted and a metal barrier ripped away from the road and floating down a river of floodwater.

Officials have said conditions are still too dangerous to fully evaluate the extent of the crisis. In remarks to the public, Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, described the damage as “catastrophic.”

He asserted that the storm has been one of the most significant since Hurricane Maria — which hit the island almost exactly 5 years ago to the day — killing more than 3,000 people, leaving many without power for months, and causing destruction that the island is still recovering from.

Pierluisi noted that Puerto Rico has received over 30 inches of rain and that some areas have even gotten more rain than during Hurricane Maria. As of Monday afternoon, the National Gaurd has led 30 rescue operations so far, saving more than 1,000 stranded residents in 25 municipalities, according to the governor.

Pierluisi also added that more than 2,000 people were in the island’s 128 shelters, with officials further saying there is plenty of shelter space for those who need it. On Sunday, President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico, which will allow federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief.

Continued Issues As Storm Rages On

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s water authority has confirmed that just over 70% of the island is still without water. According to poweroutage.us, more than 1.3 million customers were still without power as of Monday morning.

The power company LUMA also stated that electricity had been restored to around 100,000 customers over the course of Sunday night, though it previously warned that the full restoration of power could take several days as the storm has created “incredibly challenging” conditions.

While Hurricane Fiona has passed through Puerto Rico, having now made landfall in the Dominican Republic, officials and experts say that heavy rains and further flooding are still to be expected for the next few days.

The National Weather Service has warned that “life-threatening and catastrophic flooding” as well as mudslides and landslides are expected to continue across the island. As a result, Pierluisi has urged Puerto Ricans Monday to remain home and in shelters so that officials can continue to respond to others in need.

He also noted that the areas most impacted by the hurricane include the southern part of the island, the southwest, and the mountains.

After moving through the Dominican Republic, Hurricane Fiona is expected to head towards Turks and Caicos Tuesday. The National Hurricane Center has said that the storm will continue to grow and by Wednesday, it is set to become a major hurricane — which means a Category 3 or higher.

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

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Government Aid Cut Child Poverty in Half During Pandemic, Data Shows

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The reduction occurred similarly across geography, race, family type, and citizenship status.


Largest Drop in Half a Century

The United States’s child poverty rate sank to the lowest level on record last year, primarily thanks to pandemic relief measures and other government programs, according to an analysis of census data released Tuesday.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities analyzed data from the Census Bureau’s supplementary poverty measure, which accounts for safety net programs and tax credits as well as regional differences in the cost of living.

From around 11% in 2019, the percentage of kids living below the poverty line fell to 9.7% in 2020 and 5.2% the year after that.

In just two years, nearly 5.5 million kids were lifted from poverty, marking an almost 60% drop in the child poverty rate.

The Center’s researchers gave most credit to the federal government’s numerous interventions in the economy, from stimulus payments and the expanded child tax credit to eviction moratoriums and expanded unemployment insurance.

Without government intervention, poverty in 2020 would have experienced its second-largest recorded increase, the Center claimed, but instead, it underwent the largest single-year decline in over half a century.

Especially impactful was the expanded child tax credit, which sent up to $300 per child to households with children every month between July and December 2021.

According to the analysis, this policy alone pulled nearly three million kids out of poverty.

But the tax credit’s expansion expired at the end of the year despite Democrats’ efforts to prolong it with Biden’s signature Build Back Better bill, which was blocked by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), who reportedly told colleagues he was concerned that families might use the payments to buy drugs.

Poverty Before COVID

Child poverty has fallen by 59% since 1993, when it sat at around 28%, according to another analysis published Sunday by The New York Times and the nonpartisan group Child Trends.

They found that the decline occurred across all 50 states and D.C., as well as in different levels of poverty.

It similarly affected nearly all subgroups of children, — white, Black, Asian and Hispanic, single-parent and two-parent, immigrant and non-immigrant.

The causes driving the pre-pandemic decline included general economic improvement — low unemployment, a higher labor force participation rate among single mothers, and growing state minimum wages — but the researchers pinned government welfare programs as the dominant factor.

They specifically mentioned the earned income tax credit, social security, unemployment insurance, and nutrition and housing assistance.

Despite the positive trend, more than eight million children still live below the poverty line, and that number excludes those who live just above it but still struggle to meet basic needs.

The current poverty line sits around $29,000 for a family of four in a location with typical living costs.

Moreover, disparities still persist, with Black and Latino children about three times as likely as their white peers to be poor.

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

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