Prostasia Foundation Protecting children by upholding the rights and freedoms of all
Prevention experts pan the EARN IT Act

"We need to give more than lip service to prevention," said a group of experts today, addressing the Senate Judiciary Committee about the EARN IT Act. The Act was introduced into Congress last month, with claims from its sponsors that it would "prevent online child exploitation." Yet the signatories to today's letter, which include Prostasia Foundation, the Global Prevention Project, Stop It Now!, and NARSOL, have slammed the law for failing to live up to this claim.

The letter identifies three key problems with the EARN IT Act. The first is that although the Act would establish a so-called National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, no prevention experts are included on it. Since the commission would be tasked with developing recommendations that Internet companies must follow, this creates what the letter describes as a "blind spot" that may "impede the work of prevention experts."

The second problem is that the EARN IT Act would politicize the process of developing recommendations on child sexual abuse prevention. The co-signatories write, "We fear that because recommendations to strengthen enforcement are politically “safer” for representatives to support than those that could prevent offending in the first place, the latter will face tougher scrutiny in Congress even if they are better supported by experts."

The third problem lies with the law's assumption that technology companies  hold the keys to the prevention of "enticement, grooming, sex trafficking, and sexual abuse," when in fact their involvement is only a very small part of tackling these problems. "It isn’t a matter of Internet platforms being unwilling to provide a comprehensive response to the problem," the letter states, "they simply can’t." Yet the EARN IT Act would do nothing to support or fund the prevention initiatives that experts are calling out for.

How could the EARN IT Act do better at paying more than lip service to the prevention of child sexual abuse? For starters, the letter points to the allocation of $2 million for prevention in the Fiscal Year 2020 Labor-HHS-Education Funding Bill. But considering that the lifetime cost to society of the sexual abuse of a single child has been estimated at $1.5 million, the funding currently allocated to prevention is a tiny drop in a huge bucket.

The experts have spoken, but you too can have your say about the EARN IT Act. Tell your representatives that you support the prevention of child sexual abuse, but that EARN IT doesn't cut the mustard. Ask them to go back to the drawing board and increase funding for primary prevention instead—something that EARN IT doesn't even attempt to do. You can send them a personalized letter simply by clicking the button below.

Take action
Exclusive EARN IT webinar
Exclusive EARN IT webinar
Attend our free webinar on defeating the EARN IT Act by educating policymakers about how prevention is really done!

Register now
Latest blog posts
Underage models in the art and business of fashion
In 2018, Vogue Magazine and its publisher Condé Nast announced a new policy that no model under the age of eighteen would be photographed for editorial shoots. Vogue's policy isn't…
More reasons why boys don't disclose abuse
The first part of this two-part article explained how sexually exploited boys can find it more difficult to disclose their abuse if they hold to rigidly defined notions of masculinity.…
How EARN IT hands the government control of the Internet

The censorship committee that the EARN IT Act would establish would contain nineteen members. This includes three direct representatives of the federal government—the Attorney General, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission—who also have a veto over the committee’s recommendations. Four of the remaining nineteen members are law enforcement agents or prosecutors—so these members can also be considered direct government representatives. (If you’re keeping count, that makes seven out of nineteen, so far.)

But let’s keep going. Another four are representatives of technology companies, and there are two non-governmental computer science experts, along with two lawyers—let’s assume that the lawyers will also be non-governmental, although the EARN IT Act doesn’t specify. So that makes at most eight out of nineteen non-governmental representatives, so far, and fifteen total members accounted for.

There are four members left who are likely to hold the balance of power on the EARN IT Act’s censorship committee in cases of disagreement (fourteen votes are required to carry a recommendation). Who are they? The EARN IT Act characterizes them as people who are “survivors of online child sexual exploitation, or have current experience in providing services for victims of online child sexual exploitation in a non-governmental capacity.” This sounds like non-governmental members hold the balance of power, right? Well, not so fast.

The “non-governmental” organization that has been a driver of EARN IT, and is almost certain to be appointed in at least one of these positions, is NCMEC, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. In a groundbreaking 2016 case called U.S. v Ackerman, the Federal 10th circuit Court of Appeals found that because it performed functions for the government under a statutory mandate, NCMEC was itself a government entity for Fourth Amendment purposes, and therefore it was unconstitutional for NCMEC to scan emails without a warrant.

To avoid this result, NCMEC has ceased directly scanning the communications of Internet users, and has instead relied on independent Internet companies to scan content “voluntarily.” Indeed, one of the constitutional concerns about the EARN IT Act is that if the Act’s censorship committee requires companies to use the NCMEC databases to scan users’ content, the Internet companies too may be found to be acting as agents of the government, which would make that requirement unconstitutional. In any case, it is beyond doubt that NCMEC itself, which received $33 million in government funding last year, is another representative of the government on EARN IT’s censorship committee.

What about the “survivors of online child exploitation” who are to be appointed to the censorship committee? These are a new edition to the final text of the bill, which originally only called for a 15 or 16 member committee. It’s fair to say that we don’t know who these representatives will be, yet—but we can take a good guess. The most likely possibility is that they will be drawn from the Phoenix 11, a group of survivors of online child sexual abuse who are supported by NCMEC and its Canadian counterpart, the Canadian Center for Child Protection, to provide a human face (albeit an anonymous one) for those organization’s public policy positions.

We know that the Phoenix 11 don’t write their own public statements; the Canadian Center admits that part of its “support” for the group includes “writing letters on their behalf.” Even if they hadn’t admitted this, it is obvious from the language of the group’s statements (which talk about “the relentless onslaught of the technology of abuse”), and from the arcane topics that the group chooses to weigh in on (such as European privacy law). It would be unfair to call these brave survivors puppets of NCMEC and the Canadian Center. However, equally it would be inaccurate to describe them as an independent movement of survivors. They too, if appointed to the censorship committee, will essentially be government representatives.

Indeed since all of the members of EARN IT’s censorship committee are government-appointed, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that it incorporates no independent representation of other stakeholder groups at all. But even in the best light, the supposedly “non-governmental” representatives of child sexual abuse survivors will almost certainly be government representatives in all but name. This provides the government with up to a supermajority that will be difficult if not impossible for the independent members of the committee to defeat. This is how the government seeks to use the EARN IT Act to obtain control of the Internet—and why it’s vital that we have to defeat that Act. Please, take action today.

Take action
Review: The Trouble With Being Born

The Trouble With Being Born is an atmospheric German language art film about a ten year old girl named Elli, who is soon revealed to be not a girl at all, but an android. Partly inspired by public debates over the possibility of "childlike" sex robots, the film thankfully doesn't spend much screentime on this aspect of Elli's function, although most of the film's critics have fixated on it. 

Since it isn't integral to the plot, why did the filmmaker, Austrian Sandra Wollner, suggest that the android was used as a sex toy by one of its owners at all? Perhaps because the viewer's instinctive empathy for the robot begins to feel increasingly absurd as its lack of humanity becomes more apparent. The shape of the android encourages the viewer to interpret what happens to it in the familiar terms of human relationships, and to recognize familiar filmic motifs in the events depicted on screen. But as much as Elli attempts to mimic a human girl, the cracks in this facade and the shortcomings of her programming soon become apparent, requiring us to reevaluate our assumptions. (Skip the next two paragraphs if you don't want to read spoilers about the plot of the film.)

Like much else in the film, the extent of Elli's self-awareness remains open to interpretation. For example on two occasions, once for each of her owners, Elli is shown sobbing in her bed. But is this a real emotional reaction, a behavior that has been programmed into her, or one that she has developed through machine learning aimed at provoking a parental response? Her declarations to her first owner (her "Papa"), such as "I'm always going to be with you," and "I miss you all the time," are reminiscent of the phrases that a plastic doll would emit when its string is pulled. Although there are moments when her behaviors seem very naturalistic, the mask falls at other moments, such as when she passively observes her second owner bleeding to death.

Despite the opacity of Elli's thought processes, we can observe her getting stuck in the same loops of speech and behavior. The identity that she has constructed for herself from the scraps of memories shared by her owners both defines her, but also constrains her. At times, the non-linear telling of the narrative leaves the viewer as confused as we imagine Elli must be. At one point, Elli reenacts a scene from the life of Papa's real daughter that she had incorporated into her own memories. She ends up getting lost just as (we assume) the real daughter had, and is picked up by a motorist who passes her into the custody of an old woman, her second owner. Required to adopt a new identity as Emil, the woman's long-dead brother, the android attempts to weave the memories and identities of both children into its new persona, with eerie results.

The Trouble With Being Born is less a story about android psychology than about human psychology. What its two owners have in common is that neither is able to fully let go of the past, and both come to rely on the android as a companion and as a crutch—but it takes on a more fleshed out human shape in their own minds than it does as a true character in the narrative.

The film contains a couple of very short scenes in which the android appears nude in Papa's presence. For these scenes, the filmmaker took special efforts to shield the child actor from harm. On set, she wore a bikini which was digitally removed. Throughout the movie she also wore a mask and wig, and used a stage name. Although these measures go beyond the safeguards previously taken with child actors in similar scenes, the film's release has still caused controversy, including threats of doxxing and physical harm directed towards the director. The expanding grey area around the depiction of child nudity and sexuality also makes it likely that these scenes will be deleted if the film is ever shown in foreign markets.

But The Trouble With Being Born stands alone without these short scenes. It isn't a film about sex with androids. It's a visually stark and evocative film about how humans cling to their past, and seek to mould those around them into comforting shapes that can deaden the pain of past trauma. See The Trouble With Being Born with the expectation of finding it provocative—but perhaps not for the reasons you might first assume.

Every dollar counts
Every dollar counts
Unlike the government-supported groups, our work is truly independent and evidence-led. Your generous support is greatly appreciated.

Please donate
Prostasia Foundation
18 Bartol Street #995, San Francisco, CA 94133
EIN 82-4969920
Facebook Twitter LinkedIn Tumblr Youtube Instagram
Modify your subscription    |    View online