Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) on Tuesday objected to a request to pass by unanimous consent a bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee to strip big tech companies of legal immunity for child pornography and other child predatory material posted on their social media platforms.
Wyden argued the legislation would weaken the encryption safeguards of popular websites and apps and inadvertently make it easier for predators to gain access the communications and photos of children.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), passed through the Judiciary Committee unanimously in May of 2023.
But despite receiving overwhelming bipartisan support on the committee level, the legislation has sat in limbo for months.
Hawley on Tuesday tried to move it on the Senate floor by asking for unanimous consent to consider and approve the measure.
“It’s largely, overwhelmingly young teenage girls, young women, who are bombarded with the most unbelievable pictures, content, conduct as soon as they get on to these platforms,” he said.
“It’s time for Congress to act. Let’s take the work we’ve done, let’s put it on the floor,” he said.
Hawley’s bill, the Strengthening Transparency and Obligation to Protect Children Suffering from Abuse and Mistreatment (STOP CSAM) Act, would roll back tech companies’ legal immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media platforms from facing legal liability for material posted to their sites.
Specifically, the legislation would allow the victims of child pornography or other child exploitation to circumvent Sect. 20 to sue a tech platform for intentionally, knowingly or recklessly hosting child sexual abuse material.
Hawley said Section 230 immunity is a “sweetheart deal” that gives major tech companies little incentive to crack down on child pornography and other indecent material targeting minors.
“Until victims can get into court and have the rights and dignity of every other American challenging any other company this will not change,” Hawley said. “Congress created this problem. Congress created it by giving the most powerful companies in the world a sweetheart deal they still have to this day.”
Wyden, however, stood up on the floor to object to Hawley’s request.
He argued that Hawley’s bill would give courts a path to punish tech companies for using strong encryption technology.
“The bill would weaken the single strongest technology that now protects children and families. That’s strong encryption. It will make it easier to punish sites that use encryption to secure private conversations and personal devices,” Wyden asserted.
The Oregon lawmaker insisted he takes “a backseat to no one when it comes to helping kids and punishing predators” but warned the bill would threaten “the privacy and security of every single law-abiding American.”
A coalition of groups joined the ACLU in September to write a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) warning the bill would allow the government to “eavesdrop on private conversations.
The ACLU and its allies argued that giving victims of child exploitation the right to bring suit in court would put pressure on apps and websites to scan all content on their platforms to remove material that would expose them to liability.
Wyden argued the law would inadvertently make it easier for predators to keep secret their conversations and attempts to contact children.
“Weakening encryption is probably the single biggest gift that you can give to the predators and the monsters who want to stalk and spy on kids. Sexual predators will have a far easier time stealing and extorting photographs for children, tracking their phones, and spying on their private messages once encryption is breached,” he warned.
Hawley dismissed Wyden’s arguments as “big tech talking points.”
“The problem is they’re entirely false. I have the bill text in front of me,” he said. “The text that passed unanimously out of the Senate Judiciary Committee explicitly exempts encryption technology,” citing the relevant lines of the bill.
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Author: Alexander Bolton