March 11, 2020 / 7:37 PM / a month ago

U.S. senator threatens tech companies, says don't block his child abuse bill

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Lindsey Graham criticized tech companies on Wednesday for opposing a bipartisan bill aimed at curbing child sexual abuse material online and said he would consider a more punitive step if he is unable to get the legislation passed.

U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) attends an event celebrating the anniversary of the White House's Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) initiative at the State Department in Washington, U.S., February 12, 2020. REUTERS/Leah Millis

Graham, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, spoke at a hearing held to discuss the EARN It Act - a bill technology companies and civil liberties groups said was an attack on strong encryption critical to billions of people.

The Republican senator said he does not “buy anything” said by tech companies about ending child sexual abuse, in response to testimony from Elizabeth Banker, deputy general counsel at tech trade group the Internet Association, which counts companies like Facebook Inc and Alphabet Inc’s Google among its members.

“All they care about is not getting sued,” he said, referring to tech companies.

Technology companies have opposed the bill, which would end an immunity they have under federal law called Section 230 that protects platforms like Facebook, Google and Amazon.com Inc from being sued over content posted by users.

Specifically, the companies would lose their immunity if they fail to follow “best practices” for detecting abusive images. Those practices would be determined by a new government commission led by Attorney General William Barr. Barr is a known foe of end-to-end encryption, a technology that prevents tech companies, police and hackers from reading messages unless they have access to the devices that sent or received them.

The industry fears one of the best practices would include weakening encryption.

Graham told reporters that if the bill fails to pass, he would consider legislation that strips Section 230 protections if internet companies fail to combat abusive material online - removing their option to follow best practices.

“Probably we will wind up, if we can’t get this passed, is just carve out a Section 230 child sexual abuse (bill) and good luck in court,” he said. “Every other business is prone to being sued if they don’t child-proof their business.”

Graham and Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat who is the bill’s lead co-sponsor, said they will not support any effort by law enforcement to use the bill as a backdoor means of defeating encryption.

“This is not a backdoor encryption bill,” Graham said during the hearing. “If the commission decides to address encryption, there are significant safeguards - including congressional approval - to ensure the approach is reasonable and considers the impact of data security and privacy.”  

Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington; Editing by Matthew Lewis

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