Signal is warning that an anti-encryption bill circulating in Congress could force the private messaging app to pull out of the US market.
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the free app, which offers end-to-end encryption, has seen a surge in traffic. But on Wednesday, the nonprofit behind the app published a blog post, raising the alarm around the EARN IT Act. “At a time when more people than ever are benefiting from these (encryption) protections, the EARN IT bill proposed by the Senate Judiciary Committee threatens to put them at risk,” Signal developer Joshua Lund wrote in the post.
Although the goal of the legislation, which has bipartisan support, is to stamp out online child exploitation, it does so by letting the US government regulate how internet companies should combat the problem—even if it means undermining the end-to-end encryption protecting your messages from snoops.
If the companies fail to do so, they risk losing legal immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which can shield them from lawsuits concerning objectionable or illegal content posted on their websites or apps.
“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,” Lund wrote in the blog post.
Why Signal is concerned the bill will undermine end-to-end encryption is because it gives US Attorney General William Barr— a major critic of encryption— the power to dictate how internet companies fight online child exploitation. In recent months, Barr has been calling on Facebook to reverse a plan to expand end-to-end encryption across its services, on claims the technology is preventing law enforcement from tracking down criminals, including child sex offenders.
“Companies should not deliberately design their systems to preclude any form of access to content, even for preventing or investigating the most serious crimes,” Barr wrote to Facebook back in October. “This puts our citizens and societies at risk by severely eroding a company’s ability to detect and respond to illegal content and activity, such as child sexual exploitation and abuse, terrorism.”
However, Signal says the efforts to undermine end-to-end encryption risk doing more harm to innocent users than actual criminals, who will simply choose other ways to mask their activities online. “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,” Lund added. “Meanwhile, criminals would just continue to use widely available (but less convenient) software to jump through hoops and keep having encrypted conversations.”
The EARN IT Act opposed by privacy advocates and tech lobbying groups but has received support from six Democratic US senators and four Republican senators. “Our goal is to do this in a balanced way that doesn’t overly inhibit innovation, but forcibly deals with child exploitation,” US Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) said last month in announcing the legislation.
“Simply put, tech companies need to do better,” added Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut). “Tech companies have an extraordinary special safeguard against legal liability, but that unique protection comes with a responsibility.”
But other lawmakers say they’re against the bill, citing its potential to be abused. “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,” said Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) last month.