As legislators hound down on social media apps like TikTok out of concern for data privacy, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced new legislation that would make big tech accountable for having child sex abuse material—content that depicts sexual activity with a minor—on their platforms.
The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, or EARN IT Act, introduced on Thursday would remove existing legal immunity from corporations that “knowingly facilitate or profit” from sexually explicit images of children.
“Tech companies have the technology to detect, remove, and stop the distribution of child sexual abuse material. However, there is no incentive to do so because they are subject to no consequences for their inaction,” Erin Earp, RAINN’s interim vice president for public policy, said in a press release.
The bill would also facilitate investigations into the origins of the explicit content and update federal statutes to use the term child sexual abuse material instead of child pornography.
This marks the third time this bill has been introduced in the last three years, as prior efforts failed amid concerns that it would reel back freedom of expression online because the proposed legislation targets Section 230, a law which says online sites are not responsible for third-party content posted on their site. (The Supreme Court heard oral arguments related to Section 230 in February, which seemed to sway towards upholding the legal shield.)
“Unfortunately, the role of the internet/social media in the increased number of [child sexual abuse material] online is based on profit,” says John-Michael Lander, founder of Voice for the Voiceless, which teaches ways to help survivors and identify groomers. “Many sites initially set stipulations and guidelines to protect children, but these guidelines are easily bypassed, making managing the total daily number of uploads challenging.”
Despite disagreement about how to best protect minors while ensuring people are not subject to provisions that would stifle their online privacy, there is still concern about the breadth of abuse material online. In 2022, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) Cyber Tipline received more than 32 million reports of child sexual abuse material.
Coalitions of parents have been advocating for greater accountability from technology and social media companies, such as Facebook, which was under fire after it was shown to knowingly cause harm to minors—especially teen girls, who reported feeling worse about their bodies after using Instagram.
Experts tell TIME it’s increasingly easy to target minors on the internet because predators can easily contact children. Lander advises caregivers to be proactive and talk to their child about the dangers of online chat rooms, and reminds parents to actively monitor their kid’s social media presence.
But outside of the home, 82% of parents are still calling on technology and social media companies to do more to protect children from sexual abuse and exploitation online, according to a recent survey by sexual violence prevention organization RAINN and YouGov. Survey respondents pointed to greater security measures as a solution, including removing inappropriate material within 24 hours of it being reported and notifying law enforcement of that content in a day.
The distribution of child sexual abuse material has a chillingeffect on survivors, with research by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children finding that 67% of survivors say these images impact them differently from hands-on abuse because of the permanence of the internet.
As legislators look for solutions, Cyndy Etler, a certified teen life coach who routinely works with teen girls who are victims of child sexual abuse, says the effects are detrimental. . “Girls oftentimes end up feeling suicidal, because once the stuff is leaked, and everyone knows about it, how do you how do you come back from that? How do you recover from that?” Etler says. “If they don’t have access to someone who is not going to judge them…[then they] turn to extreme behaviors to try to escape the reality of what happened to them.”
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