SAN FRANCISCO – Some U.S. lawmakers are increasing pressure on tech companies to do more to halt terrorists’ use of their services to recruit and communicate following the shootings in San Bernardino, Calif. and terror attacks in Paris.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, D -Calif., on Monday announced she plans to introduce legislation that would require social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to alert law enforcement when they come across terrorist activity on their platforms.
The provision was originally part of the intelligence authorization bill that was approved unanimously by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but was later removed because objections to it were holding up the underlying bill.
Feinstein now expects to introduce that language as a stand-alone bill this week.
“Note that it does not require companies to look for it, merely report it when they come across it,” said her press secretary, Tom Mentzer.
There are concerns that Syed Rizwan Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, whom authorities say went on a shooting rampage that killed 14 in San Bernardino, Calif. on Dec. 2, might have frequented extremist online sites. FBI says it is investing the shootings as a possible act of terrorism.
Malik posted an online message of support for ISIL just prior to the attacks, authorities said.
The issue is on the minds of governments worldwide. Last week several European Ministers of the Interior met in Brussels with social networking companies to discuss the ways in which their sites are being used by terrorists and those who support them, according to news reports. The meetings follow coordinated attacks in Paris on Nov. 13. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.
The sites could do a lot more that they currently do, said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles’ digital terrorism and hate project.
“One thing the social networking companies know a lot about is predictive behavior. These companies are perfectly able to bar repeat offenders,” he said.
Feinstein’s push is one of many voices on the issue.
Sunday night, President Barack Obama gave a speech in which he said that extremists were “poisoning the minds” of killers already on American soil.
In a speech on Sunday, Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton called on Silicon Valley to “disrupt” ISIL and its recruitment efforts by blocking or taking down its recruitment and training sites and blocking its ability to encrypt messages. She spoke at the Saban Forum, a meeting at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. focusing on Israeli security issues.
There are two main issues converging when it comes to terrorists and the Internet.
The first is the skillful use groups like ISIL are making of the Web to spread their propaganda and training, allowing the disaffected worldwide to be radicalized in the privacy of their own homes.
The second is the use of technological tools such as encryption to allow extremists to communicate privately without fear of government surveillance.
In both the Paris and San Bernardino massacres, it appears that the attackers used the Internet to view pro-extremist material.
Whether they used sophisticated tools to hid their activities from their respective governments is less clear.
In the case of Farook and Malik, authorities have not said that they made use of any sophisticated encoding programs.
They did smash and then throw away their cell phones but authorities found them and are currently working to retrieve any information that was on them, David Bowdich, assistant director of the FBI’s Los Angeles office said last week.
Facebook says it shares the government’s goal of keeping terrorist content off the site and works aggressively to remove it as soon as it becomes aware of such content.
“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,” said Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of content policy.
Twitter, Google and YouTube did not respond to a request for comment.
Tech companies have been cautious of seeming to work too closely with government requests for data since 2013, when Edward Snowden revealed the extent to which the U.S. was conducting digital surveillance of both citizens and non-citizens.
Online privacy groups have consistently been strongly opposed to any measures that would conflict with individuals’ privacy and free speech rights.
“Social media companies shouldn’t take on the job of censoring speech on behalf of any government, and they certainly shouldn’t do so voluntarily,” said Danny O’Brien, international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Attempting to set speech restrictions online is a slippery slope, he said.
“Who defines ‘terrorism’? Does Facebook, for example, intend to enforce its policies only against those that the United States government describes as terrorists, or will it also respond if Russia says someone is a terrorist? Israel? Saudi Arabia? Syria? The same questions apply to the speech that might be targeted,” he said.
He’s especially concerned that the speech being discussed isn’t illegal.
Wiesenthal’s Cooper disagrees. He believes the issue is no longer so simple as privacy on the one hand and Big Brother on the other — and that social medial companies could make a difference if they chose to.
“I think we’ve collectively reached a tipping point,” he said. “If these companies took this seriously, they could put an immediate dent into the marketing capabilities of ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and the rest.”
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