New Bill Would Force Social Media Companies To Identify Potential Terrorists, Report Them To Government

CREDIT: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Last week’s San Bernardino shooting, following the Paris attacks, have left the world on edge, looking for the best ways to counteract terrorism. In the hunt for solutions, Congress members and presidential candidates looking to Silicon Valley for help online. But a new bill that calls for social media companies to report terror-related messages raises concerns about free speech and the potential for abuse.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) reintroduced a bill this week, the “Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act,” that would require tech companies to search for and report messages that could incite terrorism acts.

“If you create a product that allows evil monsters to communicate in this way… that’s a big problem,” Feinstein said about social media platforms on MSNBC.

Feinstein, who is the vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, commended Facebook for taking down a page where one of the San Bernardino shooters, Tashfeen Malik, allegedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (ISIS) shortly before the deadly attack. But social media companies need to do more than take down pages on their own, Feinstein said, and report them and individuals to the government.

“This is essentially the largest attack since 9/11,” she said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “We are at a different stage now. I’m all for freedom of speech, but it doesn’t mean encouraging terrorism.”

Feinstein isn’t the only U.S. politician leaning on Silicon Valley to help quash terrorism. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton recently called on tech companies to “disrupt.”

“You are going to hear all the familiar complaints: ‘freedom of speech,'” Clinton said during a foreign policy and security speech at the Brookings Institution Monday. “We need to put the great disrupters at work at disrupting ISIS.”

Other presidential candidates have chimed in asking for weakened encryption and backdoor access to websites to ensure national security. GOP presidential hopeful Lindsey Graham spoke out Wednesday in a Fox News interview, saying Silicon Valley needed to change its policies.

One of the gunmen involved in the shooting outside of a Prophet of Muhammad cartoon drawing contest in Garland, Texas “had 109 messages sent between him and a known terrorist overseas that we could not look at because of encryption,” Graham told Fox News’ Greta van Susteren. “There is technology available to terrorists where they can communicate without — even with a court order, they can communicate without us knowing. That has to change.”

Facebook and Twitter said terrorists aren’t welcome on their platforms and that they actively seek and remove violent or terror-related content, but Feinstein’s bill could go too far. Civil liberties advocates and the tech community previously shot down the bill when it was attached to a pending intelligence authorization bill.

One of the biggest criticisms of the bill is that its vagueness could allow otherwise innocent people to be targets for government surveillance.

Emma Llansó, the director of the Center for Democracy’s free expression project, said Feinstein’s bill and other policies like it are popping up in response to recent attacks and could cause companies to overreport suspected terror posts.

“One of the many problems with the bill is that it vaguely [addresses] how companies would have to describe the facts and circumstances of the terrorist activity,” she said. “Whenever [politicians] are talking about what amounts to a censorship policy we need to bevery clear about what amounts to unlawful content.”

Without specificity, individuals who author, like or share a flagged post could be reported to the government. Users in the author’s network could also be at risk, she said.

“Internet companies are doing content moderation all of the time and they’re not always perfect in how they make decisions — even when they compare content to their own terms of service,” Llansó said.

“If we turn this into something where companies’ decision-making has the consequence of turning people into the government…there are no safeguards for the person who gets turned in for being associated with terrorism.”