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To Catch Sex Predators, Congress Must Raise Big Tech’s Standards

Parents are deeply anxious about their children being targets of exploitation from online child sexual abuse material and about the trafficking of fentanyl and other deadly substances on social media platforms.

In this guest article Senator Marsha Blackburn (R–TN) outlines a crucial piece of legislation, which she’s introduced with bipartisan support, to address how to attack this scourge more effectively. This bill is particularly important because it wouldn’t have to be repeatedly updated as technology advances.

It deserves swift passage.

Among the committees Senator Blackburn serves on is the Commerce, Science & Transportation Committee, whose jurisdiction includes broadband and communications technology.

Guest post by Senator Marsha Blackburn

Over the past 20 years, Silicon Valley has been responsible for more than its fair share of culture-defining moments. From the rise of social media to the ubiquity of video chat, Big Tech platforms have—and intend to keep—our attention. The downside is that this commitment to innovation has made young tech consumers especially vulnerable to exploitation. At a time when fentanyl is being trafficked on social media platforms and reports of online child sexual abuse material (CSAM) are on the rise, our children have never been at greater risk.

Although the pandemic-driven shift to virtual schooling and socialization prompted Congress to reexamine this problem, its work began long before Covid-19 forced the issue. In 2018 I facilitated passage of the landmark FOSTA-SESTA legislative package, which made clear that online platforms and their users can be held liable for online sex trafficking. It was an effective warning shot, but since then Congress has coasted on the issue, allowing predators to exploit fast-paced innovation virtually unanswered.

Fortunately, in the last Congress we made progress on two bills that would chip away at this deficit: the END Child Exploitation Act, which lengthens the preservation timeline on CSAM evidence; and the Kids Online Safety Act (KOSA), which imposes a duty on online platforms to prevent and mitigate sexual exploitation on their sites. Neither bill made it to President Biden’s desk, but each represents a critical step in catching child predators without depending on Congress’ ability to keep up with Big Tech.

However, if we want to stop these monsters in their tracks, we must also overhaul the standards that govern the online platforms’ reporting of CSAM. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children’s (NCMEC) CyberTipline is our nation’s central reporting system for online child exploitation. Using this system, tech companies can flag illicit activity, which, in turn, NCMEC makes available to law enforcement. The CyberTipline is critical to exposing predation, but, like most things, it is in desperate need of an update.

The bipartisan bill Senator Jon Ossoff (D–GA) and I introduced this year, Revising Existing Procedures on Reporting via Technology (REPORT) Act, would accomplish this goal with just a few changes to the law. While current standards allow for voluntary reporting of CSAM and include no reporting requirements for child sex trafficking and enticement crimes, the REPORT Act would make those reports mandatory and would significantly increase the fines imposed for noncompliance. The bill also incorporates the END Child Exploitation Act and makes clear that vendors working to support NCMEC’s operations, as well as minors and parents who report to the CyberTipline may not be held civilly or criminally liable for taking steps to notify law enforcement about exploitative content. By adding flexibility to the timeline and guaranteeing liability protections, NCMEC, law enforcement and victims and their families will be able to work together without fear.

If passed, the REPORT Act will lead to monumental changes in identifying and stopping the spread of online CSAM. It’s long past time that tech companies start treating child exploitation with the seriousness it deserves. If a mandate to achieve this goal is required, Congress is more than capable of providing one.

—U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn

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