ACLU Urges Congress to Strike Down Dangerous Legislation Threatening to Destroy Digital Privacy and Free Speech Online

In a letter to lawmakers, the ACLU and 60 partner organizations opposed the STOP CSAM act, citing significant harms to free speech and an increase in government surveillance.

September 25, 2023 10:51 am

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WASHINGTON — In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, the ACLU and 60 partner organizations, including civil rights groups, industry associations, and groups representing LGBTQ+ individuals, sex workers, journalists, and libraries, urge the Senate to reject the STOP CSAM Act. The Act threatens to stifle our ability to communicate freely online, disincentivizes strong encryption practices, and harms LGBTQ people, people seeking reproductive care, sex workers, and protesters. The ACLU has consistently opposed this legislation, citing the unacceptable consequences for free speech, privacy, and security this act will have on how we connect, communicate, and organize.

“The STOP CSAM Act is not a failsafe way to protect kids online, but rather a disaster for the free expression and privacy of all internet users,” said Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at the ACLU. “This bill alleges that by holding companies accountable for their user’s content, apps and websites will take extraordinary steps to create safe spaces for kids online. But in reality, companies will take extraordinary steps to fundamentally alter the free flow of information and make the internet less free, less private, and less secure. We urge Congress to oppose it.”

The STOP CSAM Act, as amended, enables the victims of child exploitation to sidestep Section 230 to bring a civil lawsuit against a platform for “intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly” hosting child sexual abuse material (CSAM), or facilitating a violation of CSAM laws. This means a court can find an app or website liable for hosting CSAM even if the app or website did not know it was hosting CSAM. In order to avoid such liability, apps and websites are likely to scan all of the content on their platforms and remove any content that a state court could find, even wrongfully, is CSAM.

The ACLU and its partners believe that the STOP CSAM Act will lead to censorship of First Amendment protected speech, including speech about reproductive health, sexual orientation and gender identity, and personal experiences related to gender, sex, and sexuality. Even today, platforms regularly remove content that has vague ties to sex or sexuality for fear of liability, and this would only increase if STOP CSAM incentivized apps and websites to exercise a heavier hand at content moderation.

If enacted, the STOP CSAM Act will also make it more difficult to communicate without the interference of the government, hackers, or anyone else through the use of end-to-end encryption. End-to-end encrypted communications cannot be read by anyone but the sender or recipient — that means government actors, malicious third parties, and even platforms themselves are unable to access messages as they’re transmitted. Offering encrypted services could open apps and websites up to liability, because a court could find that end-to-end encryption services are likely to be used for CSAM, and merely offering them is reckless.

If these bills are not blocked, then platforms that are unable to sufficiently police content and are fearful of legal liability may be forced to stop allowing user-generated content entirely. These effects significantly impact the public’s ability to speak, learn, and engage with others online, and compromise the internet as we know it.

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