Wires

UPDATE 1-U.S. legislation targets online child sexual abuse; threatens encryption on Facebook, Google

Nandita Bose and Joseph Menn

encryption on Facebook, Google@ (Adds comments from companies, lawmakers and groups)

WASHINGTON/SAN FRANCISCO, March 5 (Reuters) - A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation on Thursday to curb the online distribution of child sexual abuse material and threatens technology companies that offer encryption.

The legislation by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal aims to fight such material on platforms like Facebook and Alphabet's Google's by making them liable for state prosecution and civil lawsuits.

Major tech trade groups, civil liberties advocates and security experts quickly condemned the bill. They said it was aimed at disrupting strong encryption that protects ordinary Americans and businesses, and that it was exploiting the scourge of child abuse to do so.

The Eliminating Abuse and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019," or "EARN IT Act," has bipartisan support with eight additional co-sponsors, including Democratic lawmakers such as Senators Diane Feinstein, Dick Durbin and Sheldon Whitehouse and Republican Senators Josh Hawley, Kevin Cramer and Joni Ernst.

The bill threatens a key immunity companies have under federal law called Section 230, which shields online platforms from being treated as the publisher of information they distribute from others, protecting them from most liability over content.

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who co-authored Section 230, criticized the bill.

"This terrible legislation is a Trojan horse to give Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump the power to control online speech and require government access to every aspect of Americans' lives," he said.

The Earn It Act cuts their protection unless companies comply with a set of "best practices" determined by a National Commission. The commission will consist of heads of agencies like the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security, along with 16 other members from law enforcement, survivors and victims' services groups, as well as the tech industry.

"For the first time, you will have to earn blanket liability protection when it comes to protecting minors," Graham said in a statement.

Blumenthal said technology companies need to do better.

"Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility," he said.

This immunity from legal responsibility "is a privilege they have to earn it and thats what our bipartisan bill requires," Blumenthal added.

The move is the latest example of how regulators and lawmakers in Washington are reconsidering the need for incentives that once helped online companies grow but are increasingly viewed as impediments to curbing online crime, hate speech and extremism.

With encryption foe Attorney General William Barr leading the commission, opponents of the bill said it was an all but foregone conclusion that the best practices would not include end-to-end encryption, which stops tech companies, police and hackers from reading messages unless they have access to the devices that sent or received them.

Facebook spokesman Thomas Richards said the company is concerned the EARN IT Act may be used to roll back encryption and may limit the ability of American companies to provide the private and secure services that people expect.

"The EARN IT Act creates a false choice between protecting children and supporting strong encryption protections, said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice - a group that counts Facebook, Google, Twitter among its members.

The American Civil Liberties Union said the bill threatens the safety of activists, domestic violence victims and millions of others who rely on strong encryption every day.

At a separate event on Thursday, the Department of Justice and major tech companies agreed on principles for combating child exploitation online. One of the principles said that technology platforms "should seek to design their products with child safety in mind," something that could be seen as opening a discussion about how to defeat encryption.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose in Washington and Joseph Menn in San Francisco; Additional reporting by Raphael Satter in Washington; Editing by Dan Grebler)