Judiciary Committee Approves Bill Holding Big Tech Firms Accountable for Child Sexual Abuse Material


The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday voted to introduce a bill aimed at cracking down on child sexual abuse material (CSAM) online and holding Big Tech firms accountable.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) joined forces on May 11 to advance the legislation, which aims to combat the proliferation of CSAM online and grants more support to victims, while also bolstering accountability and transparency among online platforms.

Specifically, the bill would hold tech companies more accountable for CSAM posted on their platforms by limiting their immunity from civil liability under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, instead making them liable for certain child exploitation offenses.

Under the legislation, it is deemed unlawful for a “provider of an interactive computer service” as defined in Section 230, to knowingly host or store child pornography or make child pornography available to any person on their platforms.

Platforms that violate the legislation risk being fined up to $1 million although that could go up to $5 million if the offense “involves a conscious or reckless risk of serious personal injury or an individual is harmed as a direct and proximate result of the violation,” the legislation states.

Expanding Protections for Victims

The bill also expands protections for child victims and witnesses in federal court; facilitates restitution for victims of child exploitation, human trafficking, sexual assault, and crimes of violence; and “empowers victims” by removing obstacles for them when it comes to them asking tech companies to remove CSAM from their platforms.

The bill has received endorsements from a string of organizations including the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the National Children’s Alliance, the Child Rescue Coalition, the National District Attorney’s Association, the National Fraternal Order of Police, the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the National Criminal Justice Training Center, and the Youth Power Project, among others.

In a May 11 press release, Hawley noted that the Senate Judiciary Committee had adopted his Section 230 amendment to the bill prior to passing it.

“I’ve just become convinced that maybe the only way to get the attention of these platforms is to give individuals the right to get into court,” said Hawley. “For the first time, [this legislation]will allow victims of this material to get into court and to sue the people who made it, but also those platforms who knowingly hosted.”

In a separate statement, Durbin took aim at online platforms for failing to protect kids, noting that child safety is a top priority among both political parties.

‘The System Is Failing Our Children’

“The system is failing our children and we, as lawmakers, need to address this head-on,” Durbin said. “I’m pleased that my Judiciary Committee colleagues unanimously supported the STOP CSAM Act in Committee today.”

“The legislation is a comprehensive approach to close gaps in the law and crack down on the proliferation of child sex abuse material online. I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues on this effort,” he added.

According to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, the number of victims identified in CSAM rose from 2,172 to more than 21,413 from March 2009 to February 2022.

In 2022, the center’s Cyber Tipline received more than 32 million reports of CSAM.

However, some organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), have raised concerns that the STOP CSAM Act and others like it will instead significantly jeopardize Americans’ rights to free speech and digital privacy.

In a letter (pdf) sent to Congress on May 3, the ACLU warned that the bill may prompt tech companies to “over-censor their users and to jettison their own security tools in order to reduce their exposure to any legal liability.”

“These bills purport to hold powerful companies accountable for their failure to protect children and other vulnerable communities from dangers on their services when, in reality, increasing censorship and weakening encryption would not only be ineffective at solving these concerns, it would in fact exacerbate them,” said Cody Venzke, senior policy counsel at ACLU.