Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, Snap and Roblox have agreed to adopt 11 voluntary principles to prevent online child sexual exploitation, government officials said Thursday.
US Attorney General William Barr announced the initiative, joined by acting Homeland Security Secretary Chad Wolf and senior government officials from Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Representatives from the six companies were also at the press conference.
The voluntary principles would require companies to prevent child sexual abuse from spreading on their platforms and to adopt enhanced safety measures for protecting children online. The principles also ask tech companies to share more information with one another and with governments.
"We stand behind these principles and will be working with our members to both spread awareness of them and redouble our efforts to bring industry together to promote transparency, share expertise and accelerate new technologies to combat online child sexual exploitation and abuse," the coalition said in a statement.
Twitter VP of Trust and Safety Del Harvey said, "The principles unveiled today represent a valuable step in driving collective action across industry, government, and civil society."
The initiative didn't include requirements on encryption, but government officials at the press conference addressed their issues with the security protocol.
"We recognize encryption is an essential cybersecurity tool in the hands of the right people, but like any tool, it can be abused," Wolf said. "Should certain platforms go dark, our investigatory capabilities and lawful access will be significantly affected."
Governments have made many efforts to weaken end-to-end encryption from tech giants. The security protocol protects people's data from being spied on, but governments have argued that criminals are taking advantage of that protection too.
Thursday's announcement was focused on preventing online child sexual exploitation, which governments argue would proliferate because of encryption.
"They communicate using virtually unbreakable encryption," Barr said at the press conference. "Predators' supposed privacy interests should not outweigh our privacy and security. There is too much at risk."
The US federal government has had a long history of battling tech companies over encryption — famously taking on Apple after the tech giant refused to create tools that would unlock an iPhone belonging to terrorists in 2016.
The government's argument against encryption stems from how the security protocol can hinder its investigations. When messages, phone calls and devices are encrypted, it prevents law enforcement from being able to gather evidence for cases, or keep an eye out for potential threats.
But the same encryption that law enforcement argues protects criminals also protects the vast majority of people online. Your data is secured through end-to-end encryption, which means, for instance, that when thieves steal your phone, they can't easily access your credit card or health information.
Encryption also prevents oppressive government regimes from spying on their citizens, as well as tech giants from accessing protected data.
The federal government has argued that it doesn't want to end encryption that protects the average person, and instead wants "lawful access." The concept would mean creating a technical opening, or backdoor, that only law enforcement could use in investigations — something cryptography experts have long argued is impossible.
Tech companies like Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft agree with those experts and have refused to create backdoors to their encryption protocols. They've warned that if they're forced to create such backdoors, it would essentially weaken security for everyone by creating an unlock tool that could fall into the wrong hands.
But the tech companies may not have a choice for long, as countries like Australia have passed laws on encryption, while lawmakers in the United Kingdom echo the same calls. At Thursday's press conference, UK Security Minister James Brokenshire said privacy concerns must be "balanced against the safety of our children," calling encryption "the elephant in the room."
In the US, lawmakers have warned tech companies like Apple and Facebook that if they can't reach a compromise with the Justice Department, lawmakers will pass legislation requiring them to bypass their own encryption.
As the government officials made their announcement Thursday, a bipartisan group of senators announced the EARN IT Act. The legislation, which stands for Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies, looks to revoke Section 230 immunity for platforms that don't comply with guidelines, which could include bypassing encryption for public safety purposes.
The bill was introduced by Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, and has a scheduled hearing in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 11.
"Simply put, tech companies need to do better," Blumenthal said in a statement. "Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility."
Section 230 is an important component of the Communications Decency Act from 1996, which protects online platforms from being liable for what their users post. So when someone posts hate speech on Twitter, for example, the person and not Twitter is legally responsible for damages.
The draft bill is centered around protecting children online from sexual predators, which aligns with the Justice Department's latest anti-encryption efforts. Barr alluded to the bill during the press conference.
"We are also addressing child exploitation in our efforts on retaining lawful access and in analyzing the impact of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act on incentives for platforms to address these crimes," Barr said.
The bill faces criticism from privacy advocates, as well as from Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon. Wyden warned that the bill threatens free speech, security and privacy without solving the problems it's intended to.
"This terrible legislation is a Trojan horse to give Attorney General Barr and Donald Trump the power to control online speech and require government access to every aspect of Americans' lives," Wyden said in a statement. "It is a desperate attempt to distract from the Justice Department's failure to request the manpower, funding and resources to combat this scourge, despite clear direction from Congress more than a decade ago."
Facebook has laid out its plans to encrypt its messaging services, which the Justice Department and child protection organizations warn would protect child predators online.
Facebook plays a major role in reporting child exploitation cases, providing 16.8 million reports to the US National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in 2018. Government officials are concerned that if messages are encrypted, Facebook wouldn't be able to provide the same amount of evidence for investigations.
"Plans to encrypt this service would leave you blind to the same crimes, blind to the same abuse," Brokenshire said.
Comments Politics Security Notification on Notification off Encryption