Senate Advances Bill That Would Require Social Media Sites To Report “Terrorist Activities”

If it seems like everyone uses social media, well, that’s because basically everyone does. But it’s not just cake recipes and birthday party meet-ups people plan online; plenty of illegal activity gets talked about in digital space, too. And now members of the Senate want to make sure that when certain kinds of no-no topics pop up, the platform owners let the feds know.

The language that would require social media sites to alert authorities if terrorists are talking is in a bill that just cleared committee, Reuters reports.

It’s part of the appropriations bill (S. 1705) that would authorize all intelligence activity and spending for the next fiscal year — so, kind of important for Congress to actually move through, in some form or other. As such, the full text is quite long, but Reuters noticed the reporting requirements deep in section 603.

Specifically, that section of the bill outlines a duty to “report terrorist activities and the unlawful distribution of information relating to explosives.” The actual requirement reads:

Whoever, while engaged in providing an electronic communication service or a remote computing service to the public through a facility or means of interstate or foreign commerce, obtains actual knowledge of any terrorist activity, including the facts or circumstances described in subsection (c) shall, as soon as reasonably possible, provide to the appropriate authorities the facts or circumstances of the alleged terrorist activities.

In plain English, that means that the defined set of services — which include all the big social media sites and networks like Twitter and Facebook — would be legally obliged to tell law enforcement ASAP if anyone making terroristic threats or talking about illegal “explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction” floated across their networks.

An unnamed Congressional official told Reuters that the purpose was to protect social media companies that report certain traffic to the authorities, rather than to compel them to spy on their users.

In a committee hearing about the bill yesterday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said that social media companies should work with the government to prevent violent militants from using their sites.

“Twitter, FB and YouTube all, as I understand it, remove content on their sites that come to their attention if it violates their terms of service, including terrorism,” said Feinstein. “The companies do not proactively monitor their sites to identify such content nor do they inform the FBI when they identify or remove their content. I believe they should.”

The bill does specifically say that nothing in it should be construed to read as a requirement for sites to monitor particular users or their communications, as a “protection of privacy,” so it’s not that Twitter or Facebook would suddenly start intently watching each and every one of their 236 million or 1.44 billion respective active users. It’s that if certain communications made on those platforms seemed too suspicious and caught their eye — or, let’s say, an algorithmic text filter — they’d have to call the feds and report it.

A Facebook representative told Reuters, “We share the government’s goal of keeping terrorist content off our site. 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. We remove this terrorist content as soon as we become aware of it.”

The bill has been reported out of committee and will go to the Senate floor for a vote at some as-yet-undetermined time in the relatively near future.

Senate bill would make social media report ‘terrorist activity’ [Reuters]