Since late February, headlines in the American news media have focused on the growing coronavirus pandemic. Likewise, in Congress, there has been a flurry of laws and resolutions passing from hand to hand attempting to mitigate the effects of coronavirus (mainly focusing on bailing out Wall Street and big industries, but not working people or the poor). While it makes sense for society’s attention to be focused on the ongoing pandemic, as it is a truly life-changing event for the entire world, the focus has granted the U.S. government a cover to pass extremely repressive laws with minimal attention.

Most notably, a Senate bill sponsored by Lindsey Graham (and co-sponsored by 6 Democrats and 4 Republicans) was introduced on March 5, when the U.S. already had over 200 cases of COVID-19. The bill threatens to remove Americans’ ability to use end-to-end encryption. If signed into law, this would severely curtail the ability of activists to avoid surveillance.

Officially, the law is titled the “Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (or EARN IT) Act” and was purportedly drafted to help the fight against online child pornography. It would create an “oversight committee” in D.C. with broad powers to both set “best practices” for online communication relating to child pornography and to penalize companies which fail to comply with them. In particular, companies would now have the “earn” their exemption under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which makes communication providers not liable for criminal activity done by their users on their platforms. If this exemption were removed big communications platforms like Facebook would immediately be deluged by lawsuits relating to child pornography and other material shared on their platform, so the fact that the committee would have the ability to remove Section 230 immunity gives them significant power to enforce their “best practices.”

These “best practices” would likely entail requiring backdoors into encrypted communication and making more information available to police and the FBI, and could include things like requiring a government ID to register for a social media account. Because the proposed “committee” has its own power over what these practices would be, the real content of such a law is unknown.

While on the surface the bill focuses on online child exploitation, which is a serious problem in the U.S., its implications are dangerous and far-reaching. It could potentially provide the government with access and legal right to surveil everyone on the internet, to track down activists, whistleblowers, dissident journalists, and more. Instead of being a solution to child pornography, it would be a massive expansion of the surveillance state. For this reason it has raised swift criticism from civil liberties organizations.

The U.S. government has a long history of attacking whistleblowers and activists. However, new laws like this give the government even more sweeping powers to curb free speech. In addition, the U.S. is already gearing up for severe curtailment of people’s rights under the pretext of a quarantine and lockdown. While authorities deny the possibility, martial law is not out of the question, especially if people begin to resist the atrocious response to this pandemic the government has taken so far. Sweeping powers granted to the military and Executive Branch under martial law open the floodgates for even more repressive laws to be passed, and for dissent to be stifled.

We can expect as this crisis deepens that the ruling class will continue to advance repressive laws, deploy National Guard and military forces, and otherwise curtail people’s freedoms. Under the rhetoric of stopping the pandemic, the ruling class will still work to enrich and empower themselves at the expense of the majority of struggling people in this country. The U.S. ruling class and Trump administration hope that the American people will simply stay quarantined and watch silently as repressive laws such as the “EARN IT” Act roll through Congress. We must stay vigilant against these attacks on democratic rights, and continue to organize and fight back in creative ways as the quarantines and lockdowns intensify.