Signal has threatened to pull out of the US if the Congress decided to pass the latest anti-encryption bill into law. Last year, the company went against the Australian government who wanted to pass a similar law in the country. In case you don’t know, Signal is a popular encrypted messaging tool used by individuals and organizations to share sensitive information.
However, the company is threatening to pull out if Congress passes the controversial anti-encryption bill. The EARN IT Act was introduced to the US Senate last month and has received a lot of backlashes from the public and companies like Signal. The Act would force the tech companies to forgo the use of end-to-end encryption. Signal developer Joshua Lund explained the implications of the new Act in a blog post titled, “230, or not 230? That is the EARN IT question.”
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act “protects online platforms in the United States from legal liability for the behaviour of their users.” This basically means that companies like Facebook and Twitter are protected by law against the misuse of their platform by the users. While companies like Facebook can certainly carry the financial burden of being held accountable for the users’ actions, a small company like Signal cannot.
The EARN IT act turns Section 230 protection into a hypocritical bargaining chip. At a high level, what the bill proposes is a system where companies have to earn Section 230 protection by following a set of designed-by-committee “best practices” that are extraordinarily unlikely to allow end-to-end encryption. Anyone who doesn’t comply with these recommendations will lose their Section 230 protection.
Some large tech behemoths could hypothetically shoulder the enormous financial burden of handling hundreds of new lawsuits if they suddenly became responsible for the random things their users say, but it would not be possible for a small nonprofit like Signal to continue to operate within the United States. Tech companies and organizations may be forced to relocate, and new startups may choose to begin in other countries instead.
– Joshua Lund
Moreover, end-to-end encryption ensures that the data shared by two users cannot be viewed by a third-party including the platform used to transmit data. This is achieved using encryption keys that encrypt and decrypt data in real-time making it almost impossible for a third-party to eavesdrop without the correct encryption key.
The US Congress said it needs to pass the Act to track down criminals who exploit children or use social media platforms for human trafficking and other criminal activities. However, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (via Gizmodo) (EFF) has argued that there is already a large swath of existing laws that target child sexual abuse and child sex trafficking ads, the EARN IT Act is not required.
Lund correctly noted that “Bad people will always be motivated to go the extra mile to do bad things. If easy-to-use software like Signal somehow became inaccessible, the security of millions of Americans (including elected officials and members of the armed forces) would be negatively affected. Meanwhile, criminals would just continue to use widely available (but less convenient) software to jump through hoops and keep having encrypted conversations.”
According to EFF, the bill would also violate the First Amendment right which allows the freedom of speech and ” to make editorial choices regarding their hosting of user-generated content.” It would also break the Fourth Amendment which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, and will allow government actors to “search users’ accounts without a warrant based on probable cause.”