Bulletins

The Senate just revived its most divisive Section 230 bill

The Earn It Act is back, Jack.

​Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham speaking in front of a US flag backdrop

Sen. Lindsey Graham is one of the co-sponsors of the Earn It Act.

Photo: Gage Skidmore

Sens. Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal have reintroduced their controversial Section 230 reform bill, the Earn It Act, which seeks to chip away at tech platforms' legal immunity when it comes to child sexual abuse material online.

The bill, which was first introduced in 2020, has widespread bipartisan support in the Senate. But it's been panned by both the tech industry and internet rights advocacy groups, which argue it could wind up weakening encryption and putting marginalized communities at risk.


“The modern internet is infested with stomach-churning images of children who have been brutally assaulted and exploited, and who are haunted by a lifetime of pain after these photographs and videos are circulated online," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Tech companies have long had ready access to low-cost, or even free tools to combat the scourge of child sexual abuse material but have failed to act."

Currently, Sec. 230 allows platforms to be liable for violations only under federal criminal law, effectively shielding them from a range of other lawsuits that could potentially be brought at the state level. The latest version of the Earn It Act would remove Sec. 230 immunity from state and federal civil laws, as well as state criminal laws, regarding child sexual abuse material. The Earn It Act would also create a new National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, comprising the heads of the DOJ, DHS and FTC, as well as more than a dozen other members appointed by Congress.

This commission would develop a set of "best practices" for companies to abide by related to online child sexual exploitation. The earliest drafts of Earn It would have required companies to adhere to those best practices in order to receive Sec. 230 immunity. That proposal sent fear through the hearts of the tech industry and civil liberties community alike, as some worried that the commission, stacked with law-enforcement officials, would use its newfound power to require tech platforms to weaken encryption in the name of protecting kids.

The bill's sponsors amended that proposal to make the best practices voluntary, a concession that has failed to satisfy some of the Earn It Act's biggest critics. "I see that as a way to just sort of hide the ball, but by stacking the standard-setting body with law enforcement types they're all but ensuring that one of the 'best practices' will be not offering end-to-end encryption, or doing some kind of client-side scanning," said Evan Greer, director of advocacy group Fight for the Future. "Disincentivizing large platforms from offering end-to-end encryption by default is arguably one of the worst things any government could do in regards to online safety."

Greer pointed to reports on the dangerous impact SESTA/FOSTA has had on the lives of sex workers as evidence of the unintended consequences of tinkering with Sec. 230.

The reintroduction of Earn It has also prompted a backlash from tech lobbyists, who say Sec. 230 already allows the federal government to go after platforms that commit crimes. “Section 230 is no barrier to the federal prosecution of companies that illegally facilitate or fail to meet their legal obligations to combat the distribution of abuse material online," CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. "While digital services already report millions of pieces of illegal content per year, the prosecution of perpetrators has dwindled."

Earn It's supporters, however, have argued that such a bill would broaden the pool of potential enforcers and create some guidelines for companies that may not be actively participating in illegal conduct, but aren't adequately defending against it either.

The bill had strong momentum when it was first introduced in 2020, propelled in part by a heartrending hearing that featured testimony from a mother of a victim of child sexual exploitation. But the urgency expressed during that hearing — on March 11, 2020 — was quickly scuttled as the COVID-19 crisis scrambled Congress' priorities. The bill managed to unanimously pass the Senate Judiciary Committee that July, but stalled after that.

It's being reintroduced now with an even longer list of co-sponsors at a time when bipartisan interest in protecting kids online has never been higher. The Senate Judiciary Committee has already slated the bill for markup this week.

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“Been thinking about anti-perks in tech jobs. What perks *sound* good but are a hard no from you?”

The tweet came from Jessica Rose, a developer relations advocate, founder of a meetup series for programmers and aspiring programmers and co-founder of Trans*Code, a hacker org devoted to drawing attention to transgender issues and opportunities.

Rose’s “hard no” was to those so-called benefits that have been around since time immemorial (or at least since the dot-com era). “Don't give me food or hammocks or video games, just let me work remotely or go home on time,” said Rose.

'Don’t touch me'

The tweet thread was full of varied responses, but the paradox of unlimited vacation was the clear favorite. “Wow, people are just so suspicious about unlimited paid time off,” Rose told Protocol when we caught up with her to ask about the tweet.

Other workers balked at in-office massages (“don’t touch me”), free booze, open-plan offices (did anyone in the history of the world ever call this a benefit?), fitness rooms, nap rooms, escape rooms (really any rooms), and something called “blameless retrospectives.” Um, what?

If employees are going to be suspicious of whatever perks you offer, why offer any perks at all?

“So I'm aware of how wonderfully spoiled it is to complain about perks being given out in some kinds of tech workplaces,” said Rose. “I'm the most unimpressed by ‘perks’ which either directly undermine employment rights (like unlimited paid time off can do in some regions) or are intended to throw work/life balance out of kilter in the workplace's favor.”

Unlimited or flexible vacation time can work, but it helps when the culture is one where people are encouraged to take time off and experts agree that mandatory minimums go a long way in helping create that kind of culture.

Your best interests or mine? Why can’t it be both? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

A director of engineering at Google who formerly worked at Microsoft and Zillow called employer-sponsored coaching an anti-perk. “I’ll spring for a coach who is looking out for my best interests, not the company’s, thanks,” she said, adding, “I know I am lucky to be offered this, but it always feels like a trap.”

There’s good reason to be at least a little wary of these programs. Last year Protocol reported that when tech companies work with coaching programs like BetterUp and Bravely the conversations themselves are confidential, but the company often receives aggregated reports on the issues workers are expressing in general, the topics they’re discussing, what's going well for them at work, and what's not.

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This might feel overly controlling, or it might be a great way to help change a company’s culture for the better, especially if a majority of employees are feeling stressed and burned out and are more likely to tell this to a coach than their manager. Twilio told Protocol that 99% of the employees who used the coaching service last year said the sessions were a valuable use of their time, and that 94% said the sessions made them more effective at their job.

“Thoughtful, meaningful perks can benefit both employers and team members, by helping keep their team members happy and hopefully keep them in their role for longer,” Rose said.

Free SunChips < values-based work culture

Research shows that today’s employees don’t want snacks as much as they want work that aligns with their values, and that extends to benefits.

  • “I love work perks that demonstrate an employer's ethics and commitment to meaningfully supporting their team members,” said Rose.
  • These benefits can include big structural benefits like location-agnostic pay and support for different kinds of employee leave, but also smaller things like “sending people a small bonus on their birthday to buy a cake,” Rose added.
  • Rose also looks for “employers who don't subcontract out cleaning or security staff, to make sure that all of their team members get access to the same kinds of pay and support.”

What your 'perks' say about your corporate culture

Some “anti-perks” are just common decency and respect, such as believing your employees are telling the truth when they call in sick. In response to Rose’s prompt, one senior system admin pointed out a job listing that offers an “honor-based sick leave policy” in addition to its “commitment to an open, inclusive and diverse work culture.”

And think twice about listing your game room in your job description, tweeted a product designer from Miro:

“When they advertise a ping-pong table in the job listing, it's a huge 🚩 for me. And I love ping-pong. If a silly perk like this [is] such a relevant part of your benefits package, that says a lot about what the company values, and likely its culture."

A version of this story appeared in Protocol's Workplace newsletter. Sign up here to get it in your inbox three times a week.

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Bulletins