Lawmakers have introduced a multibillion-dollar plan to fight child sexual abuse, particularly on the internet.
The Invest in Child Safety Act would authorize spending $5 billion over 10 years to expand anti-child abuse divisions at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, let the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) hire more investigators and therapists, and increase funding for the state- and local-level Internet Crimes Against Children task forces.
The bill would also establish a White House anti-abuse office to oversee and coordinate the process, and it would double the length of time that tech companies need to preserve evidence of abuse, from 90 to 180 days.
This bill is being sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) in the Senate and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) in the House of Representatives, among others. It incorporates provisions from some earlier proposals; Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) previously introduced a plan to expand the preservation period, for instance. And it follows a 2008 law that established a budget and task force for investigating online child exploitation. But the bill’s sponsors say that policy didn’t secure enough money to effectively combat crimes against children, nor enough transparency about the Justice Department’s operations.
This is also implicitly a response to the EARN IT Act, a bill that would make website and app operators far more responsible for stopping abuse, removing key legal protections if they fail to act. The EARN IT Act targets Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects “interactive computer service” operators from civil liability or state-level prosecutions over user-created content, including child sexual abuse material. With its amendments, sites would be vulnerable to lawsuits if users posted illegal material unless they followed a set of undefined best practices.
Opponents of the bill — including Wyden — are concerned that these practices could include weakening encryption technology, a frequent target of Justice Department ire. They’ve also pointed out that federal law enforcement can already prosecute websites if they’re actively facilitating abuse. The Justice Department has argued that it can only target the worst actors online, leaving civil lawsuits as the only way many victims will see justice. The Invest in Child Safety Act isn’t necessarily incompatible with a bill like the EARN IT Act, but it addresses this major concern by giving law enforcement a lot more money.
“The best way to go is to give public servants — prosecutors, investigators and preventive services — dollars and hold them accountable,” Wyden told The New York Times. “That is much better than basically saying you want to unleash a bunch of civil lawsuits that take years.”
NCMEC (which has also praised the EARN IT Act) commended the bill. “This bill will provide essential, new financial support to help NCMEC, and importantly will also support our law enforcement, nonprofit, and social service partners, as we strengthen our collective fight against online child sexual exploitation and the pernicious proliferation of these images and videos online,” said president and CEO John Clark in a statement.
The bill’s funds would be distributed across several different programs on top of their regular budgets. The Justice Department would see $100 million to fund a minimum of 120 agents and prosecutors (instead of 30) on its child exploitation and obscenity team, plus $60 million to distribute among state law enforcement teams and more for other grants and training programs. NCMEC would get a $15 million grant to help it respond to tips on child sexual abuse material online.