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Ending Child Exploitation Starts with Reforming Big Tech Liability

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The online exploitation of children is an epidemic ravaging our communities. While the advent of social media made connecting to distant friends and relatives an easier task, it also gave predators easier access to vulnerable children. Now, thanks to the digital age, the online sexual exploitation of children is a rampant issue that touches every corner of society. Every kid with a cellphone can be a victim of an internet predator. A proposed bill would force negligent companies to be liable for the harm they’ve allowed to be perpetrated on so many kids.

In 2023, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children received 32 million reports of online enticement, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), and online child sex trafficking. And those are just reports from the U.S. Another study found that one-in-six American children experience online sexual abuse before the age of 18. Much of this abuse is facilitated by social media platforms such as Instagram, Discord, Snapchat, and Facebook. Sometimes the abuse takes the form of strangers messaging minors through these platforms. But often, it’s boyfriends posting sexual images without the consent of their partners, adults who know the children and use the online platforms to draw them into a sexual relationship, and even kids who make money by selling these materials online.

The impacts of online exploitation of minors are devastating and far reaching. Studies have shown the profound mental health impacts on victims – instances of self-harm, suicidal thoughts, anxiety, and a profound sense of shame are common among them.

But more tragic are the cases where exploitation leads to the death of a child. Some victims feel so hopeless and shamed by the knowledge that sexual images of them exist online that they commit suicide. Others have purchased what they thought were harmless painkillers online to find that those pills were laced with fentanyl. TikTok challenges such as the “safe choking challenge” or online diet trends that encourage girls to eat only 500 calories a day have also led to the deaths of American youths.

Despite the clear evidence that social media is a facilitator of innumerable harm to America’s children, these companies are entirely free from liability, thanks to section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law gives “interactive computer services” broad immunity from liability for third party content on their platforms and any harm caused by those materials. Because of that freedom from liability, big tech companies have done very little to address the epidemic of online child exploitation.

Since the companies won’t address the problem on their own, Congress has a responsibility to step into the situation. And that’s exactly why Sen. Lindsey Graham (R–South Carolina), in partnership with Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D–Connecticut), is sponsoring the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, or EARN IT, Act.

The bill, if passed, would amend Section 230 by removing the blanket immunity granted to tech companies. It would also strengthen the enforcement of CSAM statutes and allow recourse for victims and survivors of online exploitation.

The bipartisan bill has been passed out of the Judiciary Committee unanimously during the past two Congresses. This week, Sen. Graham brought it to the floor of the Senate in an attempt to pass it by unanimous consent, a procedural move that every Senator can use to pass legislation. Sens. Grassley (R-Iowa), Cornyn (R-Texas), Hawley (R-Missouri), and Klobuchar (D-Minnesota), rarely in agreement on anything else, all joined him in sharing remarks in support of the EARN IT Act. As Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) mentioned in his comments on the floor, no other topic has garnered unanimous bipartisan support in the Judiciary Committee as the subject of protecting kids from online exploitation.

Sen. Graham opened his remarks by emphasizing the duality of social media by saying that “these platforms enrich our lives but destroy our lives.” He told the story of a mother who testified before the Judiciary Committee whose daughter was a victim of online bullying on a social media site. Her parents complained to the company multiple times about the harassment her daughter was receiving, but the tech company never took action. When the daughter eventually, tragically, killed herself, the parents tried to sue the platform, but the case was thrown out because of Section 230 – the tech company could not be held liable. This is just one example of the countless stories of exploited victims denied justice.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) blocked Sen. Graham’s request to pass the bill by withholding his consent. In his own floor speech, Wyden acknowledged that perpetrators of online exploitation and distributors of CSAM are “monsters.” However, he argued that EARN IT is the wrong approach because it will weaken “encryption protections.” But as Sen. Graham pointed out, “this is not an encryption bill.” He further explained that “the EARN IT Act simply says that in order for [tech companies] to have liability protections, they have to prove that you tried to protect children – you have to earn it.”

The actions of these social media companies prove that they care about their profits more than the vulnerable children who use them. At the end of the day, Graham said, their lobbyist will always find “a reason not to do anything that holds these [companies] liable … they’ll never agree to any bill that allows you to get them in court – ever.”

While the EARN IT Act is one of many bills related to online exploitation that Concerned Women for America Legislative Action Committee (CWALAC) supports, it represents a huge first step towards eliminating this destructive epidemic. The companies most responsible for enabling this behavior must be held liable if they are ever going to change how they operate. We commend Sen. Graham and his colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee for continuing to fight for justice for victims and to end the scourge of online child exploitation. Use our action center to tell your Senators to support the EARN IT Act.