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Widow sues Twitter over husband's death by ISIS militants. Will it work?

The case raises questions about the difficult balance between an open Internet and public safety concerns.

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    An FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force member enters a home in Harrisburg, Pa., Dec. 17, 2015, where Jalil Ibn Ameer Aziz, was arrested on charges he attempted to support the Islamic State group. Authorities say Aziz used Twitter to advocate violence and disseminate Islamic State propaganda.
    James Robinson/PennLive.com/AP
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A lawsuit filed by the widow of a military contractor brings the fight against terrorism directly to the doorstep of Silicon Valley.

Tamara Fields says her husband, Lloyd, was killed in a Nov. 9 terrorist attack in Amman because Twitter "knowingly permitted the terrorist group ISIS to use its social network as a tool for spreading extremist propaganda, raising funds and attracting new recruits," says the lawsuit, which seeks damages from the social network under the Anti-Terrorism Act, according to Michael Bott of KNTV in San Francisco.

Experts say her lawsuit is unlikely to win, but it represents a bolder step toward blaming the social media sites terrorists are using for the terrorist acts themselves, Reuters reported.

"While we believe the lawsuit is without merit, we are deeply saddened to hear of this family's terrible loss," Twitter said in a statement. "Violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and, like other social networks, our rules make that clear."

Tech companies are not averse to aiding government efforts against terror, they insist. The question is how.

Terms of service for social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook let the companies disable pro-Islamic State accounts as soon as they find them, but tech officials have compared the job to "a game of whack-a-mole," as new propaganda pops up as fast as they can delete it, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

Twitter suspended 2,000 separate accounts in a matter of days last March, sometimes pulling a single account seven times in a day and attracting death threats from angry Islamic State supporters. 

When called upon by citizens to do something about terrorism, however, Republicans and Democrats alike have turned their attention to Silicon Valley. Pressure on the White House has increased "1,000-fold" since the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernadino, Kevin Bankston, director of New America's Open Technology Institute, told The Christian Science Monitor's Sara Sorcher.

The White House held a meeting with technology officials on Jan. 8 to discuss the issue, Sorcher reported for the Monitor. Law enforcement leaders, including the director of the FBI, met with as company leaders from Facebook, Apple, LinkedIn, Dropbox, Microsoft, Twitter, and YouTube to "brainstorm." 

"We are interested in exploring all options with you for how to deal with the growing threat of terrorists and other malicious actors using technology, including encrypted technology, to threaten our national security and public safety," according to a briefing document White House leaders distributed to those participating in the San Jose, Calif., meeting, a portion of which was obtained by Passcode. "Are there high-level principles we could agree on for working through these problems together?"

Although officials said the meeting was productive, the calls for blame make advocates for a free Internet – and the companies that rely on it – increasingly nervous.

"Tech companies are not created to investigate terrorism," wrote Amul Kalia and Aaron Mackey for the Electronic Freedom Foundation, saying Twitter's current policy was formed in response to calls for surveillance and already goes too far.

"It’s very easy for a politician to say, 'Well, somebody ought to do something' – then follow up to say, 'the tech people ought to do something,'" Jon Callas, chief technology officer at encrypted communications company Silent Circle, told The Christian Science Monitor. "Sure, maybe the tech people should. But what is it that we should do?"

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