What is Twitter, Facebook obligation to aid in terror fight?

The Senate is pushing for legislation that would require social media companies to report any online activity that could be related to terrorism. Social media companies say the proposed law goes too far.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP/File
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, (D) of California speaks during an interview with The Associated Press about the CIA torture report, in her Capitol Hill office in Washington on Feb. 11. Social media giants including Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, and Google are pushing back against Senate legislation that would require them to alert federal authorities of any terrorist activity. The Senate Intelligence Committee has included the requirement in a broader intelligence bill. The House didn’t include a similar provision in its bill.

In a bid to stop the spread of extremism in the digital sphere, members of the Senate have proposed legislation that would require social media companies to alert federal authorities of any suspicious activity related to terrorism.

But tech giants like Twitter, Yahoo, Facebook, and Google are bristling at the proposed rules, saying they are overbroad and may actually hurt law enforcement efforts to target terrorists.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D) of California – a major supporter of the legislation – says the specific provision requiring social media companies to notify law enforcement of a pending terrorist attack is common sense. The House did not include a similar provision in its version of the bill.

"The FBI and the intelligence community have made it abundantly clear that the terrorist threat is severe and increasing, and that those directing, inspiring and carrying out attacks make heavy use of social media sites," Feinstein told the Associated Press in an email. "This provision will help get potentially actionable information to the agencies responsible for preventing attacks, without requiring companies to take any steps to monitor their sites they aren't already taking."

Tech industry officials have pointed to their current policies of banning violent and offensive content and alerting officials when they feel that someone is in direct danger as sufficient. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy, said the site shares the government's goal of keeping terrorist content off of social media.

"Our policies on this are crystal clear: We do not permit terrorist groups to use Facebook, and people are not allowed to promote or support these groups on Facebook," she said. "We remove this terrorist content as soon as we become aware of it."

However, tech industry officials said the requirements in Senate legislation are too extensive and could impose harsh penalties if they miss a post. They also said that law enforcement officials may be flooded by tips in a way that would make it harder to home in on useful information.

The provision in the legislation is almost identical to the law requiring companies to report child pornography, but with one key difference; It doesn’t say whether or how a company would be penalized if it fails to report terrorist activity.

Tech industry officials said that it is easier to objectively determine child pornography rather than images suggesting terrorism. A flag of a radicalized Islamic terrorist group, for example, requires more context because aside from being a propaganda post, it could have also come from a news article.

Increasing efforts by the government to monitor social media sites for extremist activity come as terror groups take advantage of the Internet for their messaging and recruiting efforts.

Counterterrorism experts say that the massive trawling net of social media and the Internet allows extremist groups like the Islamic State to reach millions with content that can go viral, reported The Christian Science Monitor’s Warren Richey.

Some organizations have enlisted Internet-literate members into sophisticated propaganda campaigns. Terror group can generate an estimated 200,000 tweets per day based on the initial work of a couple thousand members, reported the Monitor.  

"Aspiring fanatics can receive updates from hardcore extremists on the ground in Syria via Twitter, watch [Islamic State] bloodlust on YouTube, view jihadi selfies on Instagram, read religious justifications for murder on JustPasteIt, and find travel guides to the battlefield on Ask.fm," Rep. Michael McCaul (R) of Texas said at a congressional hearing. Representative McCaul serves as the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

The tech industry faced massive public outrage after it emerged from the Edward Snowden revelations that companies funneled consumer information to the government.

In large part to rebuild their reputations, the tech industry has closed-ranks and increasingly led a public effort to limit government surveillance requests with their primary argument being that unnecessary surveillance can erode consumer confidence and hurt their business. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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