Media Up In Arms Over Twitter, Remains Silent on EARN IT Act’s Threat

The media is up in arms over Trump’s threat to sign an executive order removing the legal immunity that social media platforms currently enjoy. Yet they have for months been completely silent on Congress’s greater threat that utilizes the exact same legal provision: the proposed EARN IT Act that would weaken Americans’ online privacy and security precisely at a time that our lives are lived almost entirely virtually.

Under U.S. Code §230, social media companies and internet service providers alike are currently classified as media channels, and accordingly, not legally liable for the accuracy of information made available through them, as publishers are.

Trump’s executive order would remove immunity for social media companies when they engage in “editorial conduct” such as removing posts or adding their own commentary. The difference provides Twitter, YouTube and others powerful incentives not to restrict what can be posted, or to add “warnings” or “Context” links to sources disputing the information posted by their users.

In early March, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-SC), U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act (EARN IT Act) that threatens the legal immunity of internet service providers under the same §230 until and unless they can prove they have “earned” it—by acting as the government’s agents in spying on their customers.

In other words, internet service providers (ISPs) will henceforth be judged as guilty until they prove their innocence.

Under the guise of “protecting the children,” the EARN IT Act would grant immunity only to ISPs certifying that they have complied with unidentified “Best Practices” for preventing child exploitation. Congress will develop these “Best Practices,” in secret at a later date, and could well “compel internet service providers to break encryption or be exposed to potentially crushing legal liability.”

Government’s utilizing this strategy to attack privacy and encryption is certainly not new. In 2014, President Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder issued similar warning of the dire threat that privacy and encryption pose “to entice trusting minors to share explicit images of themselves.” Government officials seemingly cannot stand the thought that Americans have any information that it is not privy to, and setting up false straw men is their tried-and-true means of manufacturing a crisis already being addressed by industry.

While the bill’s sponsors claim the Act is needed to “Encourage Tech Industry to Take Online Child Sexual Exploitation Seriously,” ISPs already take it extremely seriously, providing millions of reports annually, including more than 70 million images of child abuse in 2019 alone.

Meanwhile, government has repeatedly shown that information in its hands is regularly used as fuel for abuse of the innocent. And Apple, Facebook, and other major Silicon Valley firms assert that “undermining their security protocols would make all of their users vulnerable to malicious cyberactivity, a view most independent experts share.”

In short, when government forces open “backdoors” into encrypted information, bad guys (whether its own agents or outsiders) are sure to follow.

So while the EARN IT Act would likely provide no meaningful additional protections from child exploitation, it would definitely produce a very chilling effect on the encryption that currently protects millions of Americans from cyber-attacks and malicious online actors—as well as on the development of stronger and better cybersecurity in an increasingly online world.

Especially with the Coronavirus shut-down forcing all of us to conduct increasing amounts of our personal and professional activities online, there could be no worse time to weaken the current encryption that provides us important security and privacy protections, nor disincentivize improvements to it.

Would that the media shone as bright a light on Congress’ threats to all Americans as it directs on Trump’s critiques of Twitter.

CoronaCrisis and Leviathan: Big Brother Comes to Your Town (and iPhone)

Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois is proposing the Orwellian (and improperly capitalized) COVID-19 Testing, Reaching, And Contacting Everyone (TRACE) Act, offering states and locales $100 billion with which to become total police states.

The bill would provide funds for localities to contact trace, test, and quarantine infected individuals, and while its sponsor claims testing and quarantining would be on a “voluntary” basis, given how states and localities are already accessing and using technology in the name of the CoronaCrisis, more funding would provide them even more tools that would make Big Brother green with envy:

“Armies” of Contract Tracers

States across the country are building “armies” (their term) of contract tracers: Gov. Newsom says California will “start” with 20,000 and may build to 100,000; Washington, West Virginia, Iowa, North Dakota and Rhode Island are using the National Guard for their contract tracing “armies;” while former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg committed $10.5 million to create an “army” of Tracers for New York, in coordination with New Jersey and Connecticut.

And just what will all these soldiers do when they’ve traced the infection to your door? Assess the suitability of your home as a quarantine location, and if they deem it not suitable, you may well find yourself escorted to an “isolation center,” which in New Jersey could include a “field hospital,” or in New York, Mayor de Blasio suggests following the Chinese model of using sports facilities such as the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens.

Drones

Police agencies are already using drones to enforce stay at home orders and social distancing, as well as detect fevers—which they do very inaccurately. Even without Rep. Rush’s additional funding, 43 law enforcement agencies in 22 states have already purchased drone technology from just one Chinese company. Who knows how many others there may be?

Cameras

Face recognition cameras are being hawked to governments to track people violating mandatory quarantine orders. American technology apparently falls behind in this area: an ACLU study of Amazon’s “Rekognition” software showed it misidentifying 28 members of Congress against a mug shot database. Once again, China offers a better way for Big Government, including technology that provides recognition of even people wearing masks (think: Hong Kong protestors).

Technology company Clearview AI is in talks with the government to create a system that would use face recognition in public places ostensibly to identify unknown people who may have been infected by a known carrier. The proposal, however, would in reality result in a massive surveillance infrastructure, linked to billions of social media images, that could allow the government to readily identify all people in public spaces for any reason.

License-plate reading cameras are another handy way for Big Brother to keep tabs on where you are. In Kentucky, church attendees were so surveilled, then issued orders to self-quarantine for 2 weeks.

Phone Tech

China, again, seems to lead the way in quarantine tech a/k/a keeping you where the government wants you. There, residents are assigned color-coded QR codes on their phones—yours must be green to leave home. But American companies such as Apple and Google are eagerly stepping forward to offer home-grown tech: proximity tracking Apps and location data for enforcing social distancing and contract tracing; and all manner of House Arrest Tech, from GPS-enabled ankle bracelets to smartphone tracking apps, are being retooled and/or developed for quarantine enforcement. The maker of the detainee-tracking smartphone app E-Cell was asked by a state agency to swap out the word “client,” the company’s term for arrestees, to “patient.”

Apple and Google promise that their technology will protect individual privacy by “anonymizing” the location data, but our cell phones are already tracking and providing our locations to tech companies and the government all the time—which data is stored to allow for virtually anyone’s location to be pin-pointed, any time.

Most alarmingly, under the guise of a coronavirus pandemic, local law enforcement, bureaucrats, and lowest-rung clerks are gaining access to massive surveillance capabilities and police powers, with no provision for privacy protection or redress against their misuse.

We’ve already learned—in full, gory detail from NSA whistleblowers and others—the massive number of people who have access to and can misuse our personal data collected by the federal government. Now just imagine all your personal data in the hands of your local beat cop, public health employee, or city hall clerk, now endowed with the power to use it as they see fit.

Because remember, this is a “Crisis:” the ordinary Rule of Law and rights don’t apply. As Louisville’s chief of public services, in imposing GPS-enforced stay-at-home orders, put it, “We don’t want to take away people’s freedoms but at the same time we have a pandemic.”

But just try to get your freedoms back once the “pandemic” has passed. As Crisis and Leviathan and recent history has shown, once they have a power, they keep it. The only way to keep your rights is to keep them all the time. Just say “No” to TRACE and every other “emergency” decree.

Coronavirus Corruption: Bad Incentives and Politics as Usual

Rebeckah Jones worked for the Florida Department of Health’s Geographic Information team. One of her greatest responsibilities was to develop and maintain the Florida Covid-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard. The dashboard provides Floridians with timely information on the number of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities at the state and county level.

Despite receiving considerable praise for her work on the dashboard, Jones was recently removed from the project and fired from her position. Shocked and frustrated, Jones lamented, “I worked on it alone, sixteen hours a day for two months, most of which I was never paid for, and now that this has happened I’ll probably never get paid for.”

How to Fix a Perverse Coronavirus Incentive and Get More Americans Back to Work

If you were laid off from your job, and you could collect more from unemployment benefits than you could get from being rehired at your regular pay, would you go back to work at your old employer if they called you with an offer to go back to work?

In that situation, many people would turn down the offer to go back to work.

After the Government-Engineered Recession, How Soon Will the Economy Return to Normal?

The arrival of COVID-19 has brought with it an unprecedented and uncertain situation in many ways. One uncertainty is that because the disease is novel, we don’t know its future trajectory. Another uncertainty is how rapidly governments will move to lift restrictions on economic activity. That is something government officials can choose. Yet another uncertainty is how the economy will respond to changes in government mandates. This is an unprecedented economic situation, because it is the first time government has deliberately engineered a recession to be imposed on a healthy economy.

Keep Government Out of Developing a COVID-19 Vaccine

In late March, California became the first state to issue mandatory “shelter in place” orders. By mid-April, nearly 94 percent of the U.S. population was under order to stay at home.

Nearly three months later, millions are still desperate to get back to their lives. Protest rallies held to “reopen the economy” have emerged across the country, even when gathering can result in criminal charges.

The Stand at Paxton County Puts Leftist Activism at Center of Corruption Drama

The Stand at Paxton County, an independently produced drama now streaming on Netflix, has a surprisingly straightforward message: Our freedoms and property rights are at risk when dogmatic special interests use the legislative process to achieve their goals. Moreover, poorly designed legislation opens the door to corruption.

The movie, produced by Forrest Films (founded by entrepreneurs Forrest and Charlotte Lucas), does something else unusual for contemporary films: It raises awareness and makes relevant the plight of ranchers and farmers under a gun from political activists. Many of these advocates know little, or don’t seem to care, about this industry, its culture, and its values. 

California Exploits Ammunition Background Checks to Confiscate Guns

Since last July 1, California has required background checks for those purchasing firearm ammunition. As we noted, by December 2019 the state had run 345,000 background checks and rejected 62,000 Californians legally entitled to purchase ammunition, including off-duty sheriff’s deputies purchasing shotgun shells to hunt ducks. Officials blamed glitches in the system, but for Ari Freilich of the Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the system was working as intended, as a “red flag” law allowing seizure of weapons from those who have committed no crime. As it turns out, Freilich was on to something.

Pandemics Are Not Recessions, And Pessimism Isn’t Logic

I thank Dr. Edwin G. Dolan for taking the time to critique my recent Independent Institute Executive Summary, A Pandemic is Not a Recession, in his April 15th blog posting for the Niskanen Center, “The Shaky Logic Behind Hopes for a Quick Recovery.”

Criticism is valuable and necessary—though inaccuracies need to be cleared up first.

More Executive Orders Will Not Fix Healthcare

Draconian measures to “flatten the curve” were implemented to prevent the healthcare sector from becoming overwhelmed with infected patients. Now, as many states reopen for business, it seems relatively few healthcare facilities are overwhelmed.

However, much of the healthcare industry is still struggling. Becker Hospital Review finds that more than 250 hospitals are furloughing employees to stay financially solvent. Medical practices are also experiencing significantly less patronage.

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