Bill aims at ter­ror­ism threats on so­cial media

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY ELLEN NAKASHIMA ellen.nakashima@wash­

So­cial media sites such as Twit­ter and YouTube would be re­quired to re­port videos and other con­tent posted by sus­pected ter­ror­ists to fed­eral author­i­ties un­der leg­is­la­tion ap­proved this past week by the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee.

The mea­sure, which could be in­tro­duced to the full Se­nate as early as Mon­day as part of the 2016 in­tel­li­gence au­tho­riza­tion bill, is an ef­fort to help in­tel­li­gence and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials de­tect threats from the Is­lamic State and other ter­ror­ist groups.

It would not re­quire com­pa­nies to mon­i­tor their sites if they do not al­ready do so, said a com­mit­tee aide, who re­quested anonymity be­cause the bill has not yet been filed. The mea­sure ap­plies to “elec­tronic com­mu­ni­ca­tion ser­vice providers,” which in­cludes e-mail ser­vices such as Google and Ya­hoo.

The bill, passed by the com­mit­tee Wed­nes­day in a closed ses­sion, is mod­eled af­ter a fed­eral law that re­quires online firms to re­port im­ages of child pornog­ra­phy and to pro­vide in­for­ma­tion iden­ti­fy­ing who up­loaded the im­ages to the Na­tional Cen­ter for Miss­ing and Ex­ploited Chil­dren. The cen­ter then for­wards the in­for­ma­tion to the FBI or ap­pro­pri­ate law en­force­ment agency.

Google, Face­book and Twit­ter de­clined to com­ment on the mea­sure, but in­dus­try of­fi­cials pri­vately called it a bad idea.

“Con­sid­er­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple on these sites are not do­ing any­thing wrong, this type of mon­i­tor­ing would be con­sid­ered by many to be an in­va­sion of pri­vacy,” said one of­fi­cial, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the pro­vi­sion has not yet been in­tro­duced pub­licly. “It would also be tech­ni­cally dif­fi­cult.”

Na­tional se­cu­rity ex­perts, mean­while, said the mea­sure makes sense.

“Rules like this al­ways im­pli­cate com­plex First Amend­ment and cor­po­rate in­ter­ests,” said Michael Leiter, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Coun­tert­er­ror­ism Cen­ter, now an ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent with Lei­dos, a na­tional se­cu­rity con­trac­tor. “But ul­ti­mately this is a higher-tech ver­sion of ‘See some­thing, say some­thing.’ And in that sense, I be­lieve that there is value.”

Un­der the bill, any online com­pany that “ob­tains ac­tual knowl­edge of any ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity ... shall pro­vide to the ap­pro­pri­ate author­i­ties the facts or cir­cum­stances of the al­leged ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity.”

The ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity could be a post, a tweet, an ac­count, a video or a com­mu­ni­ca­tion with some­one, the aide said. The at­tor­ney gen­eral would des­ig­nate which gov­ern­ment agency should be no­ti­fied about the com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

So­cial media sites gen­er­ally do not mon­i­tor their sites for ter­ror­ism or any other con­tent ex­cept child pornog­ra­phy. Rather, they rely on users to flag ma­te­rial that ap­pears ob­jec­tion­able or vi­o­lates the com­pa­nies’ terms of ser­vice and abuse po­lices. The bill does not, how­ever, re­quire com­pa­nies to re­move con­tent.

Com­pa­nies such as Twit­ter have re­cently stepped up ef­forts to do so in re­sponse to grow­ing con­cerns that they have not done enough to stem the pro­pa­ganda. Twit­ter re­moved 10,000 ac­counts over a two-day pe­riod in April.

Although of­fi­cials are gen­er­ally pleased to see such ac­counts taken down, they also worry that threats might go un­no­ticed.

“In our dis­cus­sions with parts of the ex­ec­u­tive branch, they said there have been cases where there have been posts of one sort or another taken down” that might have been use­ful to know about, the aide said.

The pro­vi­sion was prompted in large part by the case of Lee Rigby, a Bri­tish soldier who was stabbed and hacked to death in 2013 on the streets of Lon­don by two men wield­ing knives and a cleaver. One of the men, it later emerged, had had an ex­change on Face­book with a for­eign-based ex­trem­ist with links to al-Qaeda in which he said: “Let’s kill a soldier.”

Face­book ap­par­ently was not made aware of the post be­fore the at­tack.

The com­mit­tee aide said the mea­sure presents “a pretty low bur­den” to com­pa­nies, who would have to re­port only ac­tiv­ity that has been re­ported to them. “We have heard from fed­eral law en­force­ment that it would be use­ful to have this kind of in­for­ma­tion,” he said.

Civil lib­er­ties ad­vo­cates said they fear that if the leg­is­la­tion be­comes law, it would chip away at the First Amend­ment.

“The in­tel­li­gence bill would turn com­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vice providers into the speech po­lice, while pro­vid­ing them lit­tle guid­ance about what speech they must re­port to the po­lice,” said Gre­gory No­jeim, se­nior coun­sel for the Cen­ter for Democ­racy and Tech­nol­ogy. “If it be­comes law, their nat­u­ral ten­dency will be to err on the side of re­port­ing any­thing that might be char­ac­ter­ized as ‘ ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity’ even if it is not.”


A screen grab from an Is­lamic State group-af­fil­i­ated Twit­ter ac­count last Septem­ber pur­ports to show se­nior mil­i­tary com­man­der Abu Wahib on a visit to south­ern Iraq as part of its so­cial media cam­paign to rally dis­en­fran­chised youth.

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