As the world finds itself preoccupied with COVID-19, the United States government is trying to pass a law to ban encryption.
It's called the EARN IT act, and while it claims to combat the sexual exploitation of children online, it has potentially devastating repercussions for encryption and companies that use it.
EARN IT focuses specifically on Section 230, which has historically given tech companies freedom to expand with minimal liability for how people use their platforms. Under EARN IT, those companies wouldn't automatically have a liability exemption for activity and content related to child sexual exploitation. Instead, companies would have to "earn" the protection by showing that they are following recommendations for combatting child sexual exploitation laid out by a 16-person commission.
(Source: WIRED "The EARN IT Act Is a Sneak Attack on Encryption")
The US government has never been a fan of cryptography even though they make extensive use of it themselves. The "Crypto Wars" provide more than enough evidence to suggest that this might not be the only reason they wish to ban the use of encryption by the public. A suspicion only further realized when you understand the breadth of the National Security Agency's spying capabilities as demonstrated by Edward Snowden.
The logic behind the EARN IT act does not seem to add up. If we ban things because unsavory people use them then why does the US allow guns, for example? The problem is that strong lobbies who have the power to influence both politicians and the voting public exist to ensure that things like guns are never banned. Meanwhile, privacy advocates have such a small voice in comparison.
It is also important to note that encryption is available to everyone, yet only a few use it for the wrong reasons. I am not responsible for the actions of anyone except myself. Group punishment is rarely the best option. PGP and similar encryption software were created to improve the privacy of communications and online file storage. The idea of secrecy or privacy is bound to attract some of the wrong people, and yet encryption is also a force for great good. It is used by governments to keep their secrets safe and privacy-seekers to take control of their information. It is used by activists, victims, and thousands of others who rely on it for their personal safety. And it is used by millions of regular people who use encryption — perhaps not even realizing it — on a daily basis to keep their identity, finances, medical information, and more out of the hands of criminals and ne'er-do-wells.
People with the wrong intent will always find ways to get around anti-encryption laws, and there are many forms of communication that would be impossible to police. Memespeech for example, is a supposedly censor-proof method of encryption which hides messages inside normal passages of free speech by adjusting the letter formatting. While Memespeech was built as a counter to the EARN IT act, it demonstrates that any encryption technology — including itself — could be easily built and utilized by the wrong people. Banning encryption unfortunately won't prevent pedophiles from communicating, it will only harm law-abiding citizens.
If you live in the United States, the best thing you can do right now is to call your representatives and tell them not to pass the bill. The EFF has built a helpful tool if you are struggling with this.
In this time of struggle, we must continue to pay a close eye on all aspects of our governments and their actions. The US government is already taking advantage of the situation, as they are currently also in talks with phone companies to use phone location data to help track the spread of the virus. Even if this power could be used responsibly to help prevent the spread of disease, historically we have seen that when power is handed to governments in the midst of a crisis, it is incredibly difficult to take it away in the aftermath.
And if you find these ideas alarming, it is also important to realize your privacy is being abused on a daily basis. If you aren't already aware of this and actively doing something against it, this is a great time to get started and find out more. There are lots of great websites, communities, and video channels to help you learn.
Cover photo by Gage Skidmore