A new bill introduced earlier this month is being praised as an alternative to the potentially-disastrous EARN IT act that would make sites even more vulnerable for user’s speech—but sex workers say it still doesn’t go far enough in protecting marginalized groups from censorship and surveillance online.
Sponsored by representative Anna Eshoo and senator Ron Wyden, the Invest in Child Safety Act proposes $5 billion in mandatory funding to investigate and target people who create and share child sexual abuse material online. Part of that money would go to hiring more prosecutors and agents in the DOJ’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, adding 100 new agents and investigators to the FBI’s existing abusive imagery task forces, and to National Criminal Justice Training Center programs.
While a portion of the $5 billion would go toward outreach and evidence-based programs within non-federal entities and school-based mental health services and prevention programs, most of what’s outlined goes toward federal agents and law enforcement—something harm reductionists say is a misstep.
Hacking//Hustling, a sex-worker led collective, outlined how it sees the Invest in Child Safety Act as a good first step toward addressing harm, but still leaves work to be done
“We reject the premise that child sexual abuse is inevitable,” a statement released on the Hacking//Hustling website said. “When we focus exclusively on prosecution and investigation, we divest from prevention and invest in the assumption that violence is an inherent part of our society.”
While it doesn’t go far enough in prevention or community support, some online advocacy groups, as well as Hacking//Hustling, see the Invest in Child Safety Act as a potentially better alternative to another bill introduced in February. South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham introduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act, known as EARN IT, to further surveil sexual speech online. It calls for the formation of a 19-person commission that would develop “best practices… to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children, including the enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse of children and the proliferation of online child sexual abuse material.”
As with the Fight Sex Trafficking Online Act, or FOSTA, which passed in 2018, the terms EARN IT it uses to define each of these are vague and nebulous, and gives this commission—proposed to be stacked with law enforcement, prosecutors, and people working for the platforms they’re attempting to regulate—a lot of power over deciding what sexual speech survives online.
Whatever “required practices” this commission comes up with, websites will have to fulfill to receive online certification from the federal government—or else face penalties. Critics of EARN IT fear another, worse fallout similar to what happened after FOSTA was signed into law, which amended formative free-speech rights online to make companies liable for sexual speech users post on their platforms. That legislation continues to be devastating to online sex workers.
“While there is, and should be, a lot of debate on how to prevent and address child sexual abuse, the first step is actually focusing on it,” Kate D’Adamo, an activist for sex workers’ rights at Reframe Health and Justice who is working with Hacking//Hustling, told Motherboard. “EARN IT treats child sexual abuse as a foregone conclusion and then uses it as a excuse to deputize internet platforms with a history of marginalizing communities to conduct a level of surveillance that would be illegal otherwise.”
The Prostasia Foundation, a nonprofit group focused on reducing exploitation of children online while supporting sex positivity, also published a statement about the Invest in Child Safety Act and voiced concerns about it handing money to caceral measures instead of prevention.
“The biggest concern that we have with the Invest in Child Safety Act is that it seems to be engineered to ensure that most of the funds allocated to the Child Sexual Exploitation Treatment, Support, and Prevention Fund will go towards law enforcement, rather than public health based prevention interventions,” Prostasia said.
In their statement, Hacking/Hustling says it would support legislation that includes comprehensive sex education with a focus on consent and autonomy, centering transformative justice, economic and social investment in communities and families, as well as healthcare for all.
“We should be having rigorous debate on prevention programs, investing in communities and social support, and addressing the needs of survivors of abuse wholly afterwards,” D’Adamo said. “The Invest in Child Safety Act is only a first step towards that, but at the very least it allows us to refocus the conversation. We hope it will begin a dialogue that understands we haven’t found the solution, but we haven’t given up looking for one.”