A group of sex workers gathered outside Oakland City Hall on Sunday, Sept. 13 to oppose the Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Internet Technologies Act otherwise known as the EARN IT Act. Despite unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air, the group—many in respirators—projected statements against EARN IT onto the building and spoke about concerns that it will endanger sex workers and threaten online privacy.
On its face, EARN IT Act claims it will “prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children,” but its detractors—who include sex workers’ rights activists and groups that defend civil liberties—warn that it would be disastrous for internet users’ free speech and security with even greater risks to marginalized populations.
Bay Area sex workers collaborated with the collectives Hacking//Hustling and Fight for the Future on the stunt, with the goal of generating awareness online. One projection read, “Stop punishing sex workers, Kamala”—a call to Kamala Harris, who supported EARN IT in a unanimous vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee in July.
Sex worker Ruby Riots says, “It would be nice if Harris actually took time to listen to our concerns. I think it’s important that this action took place in Oakland, her hometown.”
Previously, Harris co-sponsored Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which, coupled with Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), became law in 2018. Like EARN IT would, FOSTA/SESTA amended Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which is fundamental to how social media sites are designed and operated.
Section 230 says that host websites are not liable for the content users post, but FOSTA/SESTA took away much of that protection for social media websites, in an alleged effort to curb child pornography and trafficking. EARN IT would do even more to place liability on websites.
Sites like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Craigslist have hundreds of millions of daily users. When social media sites become liable for what their users share, broad censorship of sexual content is the only way they can protect themselves from lawsuits. For this reason, detractors call EARN IT and FOSTA/SESTA disguised internet censorship bills.
Sex workers say that FOSTA/SESTA and EARN IT make the mistake of conflating voluntary sex work with sex trafficking. Sweeping censorship winds up de-platforming adult performers who use those sites to earn a living. Beyond web-based performers, sex workers who do in-person work rely on social media networks to screen prospective clients and exchange information about scammers and dangerous johns.
“I’ve had my Instagram account deleted over 10 times [since FOSTA/SESTA passed],” says Riots, adding that she’s lost count at this point.
Under Attorney General William Barr, EARN IT Act would begin by establishing a 19-person “National Commission on Online Child Sexual Exploitation Prevention, and for other purposes.” The commission would come up with “best practices that providers of interactive computer services may choose to implement to prevent, reduce, and respond to the online sexual exploitation of children….”
Danielle Blunt of Hacking//Hustling says, “While this sounds very narrow, the actual mandate of the commission covers a lot of things,” noting that the best practices could be both far-reaching and specific, including things like content retention and reporting by websites to third parties.
Hye Jung Han, child rights and technology researcher at Human Rights Watch says, “The EARN IT Act falsely suggests that we must choose between protecting children and protecting other fundamental rights, including privacy and free expression.”
“Websites will need to be aware of all child sexual abuse material-related statutes in all 50 states and will likely need to adhere to the strictest of these, meaning that the most conservative states will control access to online material in all 50 states and perhaps globally,” Blunt says.
Riots calls the impact of FOSTA/SESTA “pretty devastating.” She wants legislators to understand that EARN IT would further harm sex workers, who already face tremendous stigma and marginalization.