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EARN IT: The Anti-Child Trafficking Bill That’s Actually an Anti-Sex Work Bill

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Hello, internet. Pearl-clutching buzzkill politicians are trying to pass a bill that claims to be anti-child trafficking that is really just an attack on sex work. Again!

If you’re an online sex worker who has been at it for awhile, a new entrant padding your bills with OnlyFans, a client trying to douse the flames of pandemic-induced sexual frustration, or literally anyone who wants to keep their online interactions private (sexy or not), you have reason to be VERY worried. So close your other browser tabs for a second and focus: We need to talk about the less fun kind of backdoor action happening in the Senate.

The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies act (EARN IT) is giving sex workers Deja Vu.

Back in April 2018, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA) became law and completely changed the landscape of sex work. This legislation was touted as a major victory against online sex trafficking when in reality it actually made everything more unsafe. SESTA/FOSTA and the controls it imposed on sexually explicit content online is the reason that sites like Backpage.com shut down and sites like Tumblr suddenly became PG-13 (RIP Tumblr porn).

Sex workers who were previously able to independently host content and conduct transactions on their own terms online were either forced underground or had to move their content to platforms that take a cut of the profits. The trafficking activity the laws were supposed to be targeting was also pushed further underground, and became far more difficult to monitor. For more information on this, here’s the article I wrote on SESTA/FOSTA.

Now, EARN IT is taking the same “think of the children” approach to pour another gallon of bleach to the internet… and considering how well it worked for SESTA/FOSTA (voted in 388-25 in the house and 97-2 in the senate), we should all be concerned.

EARN IT is sponsored by none other than Lindsey Graham, a man who is so concerned for the welfare of children that he *checks notes* supported child separations at the border to the point of having protestors at his office and introduced a bill to extend detention of migrant children from 20 to 100 days.

Maya Morena

I reached out to Maya Morena, an undocumented sex worker and member of Red Canary Song for some more insight on EARN IT and how it works. According to her:

“The marketing behind this bill is that it would give survivors of child sexual abuse the ability to sue companies, thus it is sold as a bill that will hold tech companies accountable. I would make the argument that this is laughably dishonest, because company compliance is completely voluntary. Basically the bill would create a commission that would include the heads of DOJ, DHS, FTC, and 16 other members of law enforcement, survivor orgs, law and tech experts etc. who would create a list of ‘best practices’ that companies can choose to comply with.

The bill also allows companies to refuse to comply, as long as the company claims they already have ‘reasonable practices’ that address child sexual exploitation already. Part of the commission’s job would be to decide ‘whether a type of product, business model, product design, or other factors related to the provision of an interactive computer service could make a product or service susceptible to the use and facilitation of online child sexual exploitation.’

Basically it would discriminate against certain businesses as being more likely to have child abuse. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act gives sites immunity from liability for anything their users might post. If a user posts illegal content to the internet, the user is liable, not the company. The EARN IT Act claims to make platforms ‘earn’ that immunity back through compliance. It only allows civil recourse for survivors against sites that haven’t ‘earned it.’

The idea that this bill gives survivors of sexual abuse power over corporations simply isn’t true. It puts the burden of holding these companies accountable on survivors going into legal battles with corporations. And even then survivors can only press charges against companies that don’t comply with ‘best practices’ or have established ‘reasonable practices.’”

I also reached out to the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) Brooklyn Branch for additional insight:

“The EARN IT Act, disguised as legislation to curb online exploitation, is in actuality a further attack on sex workers that was started with SESTA/FOSTA. It creates a commission headed by Attorney General William Barr that has broad authority to regulate speech online and in applications. Based on AG Barr’s prior statements, it is quite likely this will include ending the kind of encryption that allows sex workers, activists, and other vulnerable communities to communicate safely without surveillance from law enforcement that often targets us for violence. A better alternative to EARN IT is the Invest in Child Safety Act, which directs more funds towards prevention of child abuse and support for survivors”

If passed, EARN IT would be a devastating blow to sex workers who have already had their livelihoods strained by COVID-19 making in-person interaction exponentially more dangerous. However, the implications for internet privacy and security go far beyond sex work. I felt as though it was important to highlight the broader security implications for other people like myself (a tech idiot currently typing this on a brick of a 2010 laptop that still has a DVD drive in it) so I reached out to my friend Nicole Schwartz, who works in software security and has been a hacker (also called information security) enthusiast for over 20 years:

Nicole Schwartz

“Although it’s been revised, the EARN IT act is still a very dangerous act. It doesn’t use the words ‘encryption’ or ‘back door’ but the legislation requires companies to either add a back door, or weak encryption, in order to be able to comply with the requirement to have ‘legal access’ to all data.

Encryption enables many of the things you do online today, make purchases with your credit card for example. When things are not encrypted, anyone in between you and the system you are communicating with can read what you send. You wouldn’t want all your medical or financial information exposed to anyone who wanted to take a look, right?

Encryption is, at its core, math. If you make the encryption weak or design in a master key malicious cyber criminals will figure out how to break in. Criminals will either steal the master key, wait for it to be leaked, or use algorithms to crack it. Once that horse has left the barn it will not be going back in.

For example, the enigma machine used in world war 2 (recently featured in the movie ‘The Imitation Game’) was algorithmically cracked by the allies using known words to speed up the cracking process. Being able to read communications that the axis thought was secure changed the course of the war.

For example, did you know hackers have figured out how to make a master hotel key for a certain type of lock? Does that make you a little uncomfortable, it should.”

Does hackers having a master hotel key make you uncomfortable? It should.

Giving this kind of power to anyone is already a dicey move, but giving it to the kind of people that would be on a commission that determines whether or not content is “decent” online would be a disaster.

It’s likely that this commission will include sex-negative members who view the internet as a child-corrupting boogeyman, such as Duffie Stone the Solicitor/prosecutor for the 14th Circuit in South Carolina and President–Elect of the National District Attorneys Association who delivered this gem of out of touch fear mongering at a 2019 senate judiciary hearing “Protecting Innocence in the Digital World” putting social media platforms and dating websites in the crosshairs:

Duffie Stone Image from Youtube

“Dating apps like Plenty of Fish and Tinder are also widely used for prostitution. These apps allow you to use your location and set a radius within which you can find “willing” women. These accounts only show a few photos and offer a brief bio about that person. The photos are generally fakes used to lure in men. The app also features a messaging option that allows users to set up a date or talk about costs for whatever you intend to engage. Like Facebook, these apps are used for legitimate purposes, as well.

Facebook also has long hosted both fake and real accounts that further prostitution. In some instances, random pictures are pulled, and an account is made. It is not unusual to receive unsolicited friend requests from random accounts that purport to belong to women, posing semi-nude and offering links that allow you to contact them.

As for what can be done to stop the exploitation of such young women on these sites, I suggest watching closely the activity that takes place on them, rather than seeking to shut down the sites. That is particularly the case with sites that have other, legitimate applications. We know for example, that if law enforcement wants to break up an organized crime ring and they find a place the mob or gang frequents, they surveil the location and gather enough evidence to make good arrests that allow for successful prosecutions. They don’t shut the place down. This is how we should approach these digital locations. Direct resources to state and local law enforcement so that they have the tech tools they need to conduct surveillance, gather evidence and shut down the underlying criminal activity. Bear in mind that, in many cases, the site is merely the conduit for criminal activity.”

Using child abuse/ trafficking as a smokescreen to compromise the privacy of the millions of users on these aforementioned websites is beyond low, especially since SESTA/FOSTA has proven that this kind of approach to absolutely does not work. Politicians that cannot discern between consensual sex work and trafficking completely write off sex workers as human beings without autonomy and agency.

Adding insult to injury, compromising their ability to conduct business securely puts them in exactly the same danger that this bill is allegedly supposed to fight. The commission being able to scattershot enforce a code of ‘decency’ leaves the door wide open for lobbying, and favoritism. If companies play ball, they likely won’t have to give up the keys to their data.

Regardless of whether or not you are a sex worker/client, this bill is almost guaranteed to put you at some kind of risk. Kaytlin Bailey, director of communications at Decriminalize Sex Work put it best: “Sex workers understand better than most how precious our privacy is, when we tell you that this bill is dangerous – listen to us.”

To learn more go right here.

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Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness

Hannah Harkness is a stand up comedian, writer, and neo vaudeville human surviving in Brooklyn, NY.

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