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Tech sector denounces bill requiring firms report terrorist activity

In the wake of terrorist attacks in California and Paris, Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Richard Burr are reviving a controversial proposal requiring social media sites report terrorist activity to federal authorities.

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    Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California backs a bill that would mandate social media companies inform law enforcement of potential terrorist activity on their platforms.
    By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/AP
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In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., attacks, Senate Intelligence Committee leaders introduced a bill Tuesday requiring social media companies notify law enforcement of terrorist activity on their platforms.

The move is already drawing sharp criticism from industry and civil liberties groups that say putting such requirements on firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google would jeopardize consumers’ privacy and free speech and overload the government with useless information.

The top Democrat on the committee, Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, however, told Passcode her proposal is straightforward. "It simply requires that if companies find something on their system which has terrorists plotting, and they take it down, that they also give it to the police," she said. 

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Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R) of North Carolina said in a statement: Since terror groups "have become adept at taking advantage of social media platforms to spread their message... the stakes have never been higher, and having cooperation with these outlets will help save lives here and abroad."

Senators Feinstein and Burr join a growing chorus of policymakers asking Silicon Valley to do more to combat online extremism in light of the recent deadly terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino. But the proposal isn't new. Feinstein pushed for similar requirements as part of the Intelligence Authorization bill this summer, but those were scrapped amid heavy opposition from tech groups that voiced opposition similar to concerns coming up now.

"This bill is actually a provision that has already been thoroughly debated, and roundly rejected, by free speech advocates and tech companies," said Emma Llansó, who directs the Free Expression Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology.

The overly broad proposal, Ms. Llansó said, could lead to "massive over-reporting by companies who are trying to make sure they are not going to incur any legal liability for failing to report – meaning thousands of Americans will be reported to the government under the banner of association with terrorist activity, including potentially private communications that the government wouldn’t ordinarily just be able to demand the companies hand over."

Llansó said the bill could also have the opposite effect, and inadvertently discourage companies from taking steps to report potential terrorist activity. "If they don’t review content that gets reported to them, or take a look at something that’s been flagged, they can argue they don’t have actual knowledge and didn’t have obligation to make any sort of report," she said.

Tech industry groups echoed those concerns. "The desire to do something, particularly in the wake of recent attacks, should not lead Congress to put more innocent people under government surveillance, without any evidence it would make us safer,” said Mark MacCarthy, senior vice president for public policy at the Software and Information Industry Association, which represents the software and digital content industries.

The Internet Association, a lobbying group for the country’s leading Internet companies, strongly opposed the proposal when it came out this summer. In a letter to Senate leaders, the group worried the requirements “would result in overbroad reporting to the government, swamping law enforcement with useless information” which could create a "needle-in-the-haystack" problem as officials search for actual threats.

Feinstein, for her part, dismissed these concerns. Her bill, she told Passcode, "doesn’t overwhelm the government with anything."

She also insisted her bill would ensure tech companies do much more than they currently are to boot terrorists off their platforms. Right now, she "most of them don’t even take [this content] down."

In an Oval Office address on Sunday, President Obama said he would "urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice." 

But exactly which proposals will gain traction in Washington remains an open question. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) of Oregon was quick to denounce Feinstein and Burr's proposal as soon as it was announced.

"If law enforcement agencies decide that terrorist content is not being identified quickly enough," he said, "then the solution should be to give those agencies more resources and personnel so they know where to look for terrorist content online and who to watch, and can ensure terrorist activity is quickly reported and acted upon."

Companies such as Facebook, too, insist they are already working hard to keep terrorist content off its site.

"Facebook has zero tolerance for terrorists, terror propaganda, or the praising of terror activity and we work aggressively to remove it as soon as we become aware of it," a spokesperson said. "If we become aware of a threat of imminent harm or a planned terror attack, our terms permit us to provide that information to law enforcement and we do."

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