UPDATE, 6:15 p.m. EST: In a unanimous voice vote Tuesday evening, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill calling for closer monitoring of social media in efforts against terrorism. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, is titled “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2015.” It now moves on to the Senate.
In the wake of the deadly terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California, bipartisan support is building on Capitol Hill for bills that would give law enforcement agencies more power and tools to scour social media in the search for communications meant to inspire or organize strikes by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, or other rogue groups. It’s a sign that some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle think the Obama administration, and the tech industry, have been slow to accept that technology has become a key front in the war on terror.
A bill titled “Combat Terrorist Use of Social Media Act of 2015” hit the floor of the House of Representatives on Tuesday. The bill, introduced by Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, calls for President Barack Obama to, among other things, provide Congress with a report on the administration's strategy to combat terrorists' use of social media.
A spokesman for Poe expressed confidence that the bill would pass the House following a vote Tuesday evening.
“The threat posed by Islamic terrorists has evolved, but the administration’s policies have not evolved,” U.S. Rep. Edward Royce, R-Calif., a co-sponsor, said on the House floor during debate on the bill. “We are simply not going to defeat ISIS and other terrorist groups without combating their recruitment on social media,” Royce said.
The bill would require the administration to produce for Congress a publicly viewable evaluation of social media’s role in radicalization and information on how terrorists use online tools; recommendations “to disrupt” that use, and classified information on what intelligence value social media analysis provides and what training is given to law enforcement agencies.
“This is the first step to tackling this problem," Poe told International Business Times via email. "Today, there is no strategy and we see individual agencies making unilateral decisions and not coordinating with one another.”
Legislative efforts to force cooperation are drawing some pushback from the tech industry. Poe's bill is “a political stunt to show [the House is] doing something,” one employee of a public U.S. company said via email. “It's a waste of taxpayer money ... Congress wants to force the White House to give them an ISIS plan so they can trash it,” the employee continued.
Since 9/11, Silicon Valley has haltingly complied with government requests for assistance in prosecuting the war on terror. But some lawmakers are seeking a broader, more consistent level of cooperation.
Poe, along with other members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Twitter on March 6: “We are a concerned that designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) and their supporters actively use Twitter to disseminate propaganda, drive fundraising, and recruit new members — even posting graphic content depicting the murder of individuals they have captured.”
The statement, addressed to then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, asks Twitter to treat “all terrorist activity” in the same way it handles other objectionable content and to create a dedicated team to watch for possible terrorist activity. Weeks later, Twitter updated its terms of service to forbid both direct and indirect threats of violence. On April 2, for example, it shuttered 10,000 accounts “for tweeting violent threats,” a company representative told the New York Times.
These major tech companies, and dozens of others, have agreed there is no place for terrorism on their networks. But some legislators want to see more aggressive action from the private sector as well as from the administration.
‘Incoherent’ to ISIS
A bill introduced last week by U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., would require social networks to report suspected terrorist communications to authorities. One of Feinstein’s three sponsors is 2016 Republican presidential contender Marco Rubio, a Republican U.S. senator from Florida. “It’s true that some social media companies may be reporting some of the time, but there’s no indication they’re reporting all of the time,” Feinstein spokesman Tom Mentzer told IBT after the bill was announced.
Poe's bill, in contrast, has two aims: improving the contact and information distribution between the government and social media companies and secondly, building a “comprehensive strategy” to counter terrorists’ social media use.
The bill cites as ineffective previous administration efforts to thwart online extremism, including an initiative from 2011. That plan included creating an anti-terrorism outreach division under the State Department.
Several of the bill's sponsors are calling for more transparency on the White House's anti-terror efforts, including Rep. Alan Lowenthal, D-Calif., who signed Poe’s bill in October.
For others, the bill serves to highlight what they claim is the Obama administration’s failure to combat ISIS online. “It is Congressman Ross’ view that the President is intentionally downplaying the threat ISIS poses domestically and abroad, and that it is completely incoherent the Administration does not have a comprehensive strategy in place,” Joni Shockey, press secretary for Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., told IBT in an email.
Poe's and Feinstein's bills put renewed focus on how the war on terror is in part being waged online. “Social media has given ISIS leaders in the Middle East the ability to reach and radicalize teenagers in Western basements — instantly and for free,” Poe said at the time, according to the Sugar Land Sun, an online media outlet based in Houston.
The House debate comes as more information is released on the San Bernardino shooters’ use of social networks, like Facebook, to share extremist messages prior to the Dec. 2 attack that led to the death of 14 people and also prior to co-perpetrator Tashfeen Malik's entry into the United States in July 2014 on a fiancée visa.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced Monday that it will develop a plan to scrutinize social media in the visa application process.
The push for legislative actions follows the chronology of terror. Poe's bill did not attract additional sponsors beyond the first four until Oct. 20. By Oct. 23, eight additional representatives had signed. On Nov. 13, terrorist attacks led to the deaths of 130 people in Paris. On Dec. 2, 14 people were killed in San Bernardino.
Prior to the submission of Feinstein’s bill, both Obama and 2016 Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton called for more action by tech companies. “I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice,” Obama said.
Congress is calling for more action, more transparency and clarity. But questions remain about details. In Feinstein's and Poe’s bills there are no specific calls for backdoor encryption keys or immediate access into a company like Twitter's system.
Poe’s bill calls on the administration to report on its coordination with private companies. “This bill will help the U.S. government respond to this threat in a more coordinated way and, crucially, will enable the government to work more effectively with the private sector, which has an important role to play in this area and can act more quickly and innovatively,” Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., a ranking member of the House Terrorism Subcommittee who signed the bill on Dec. 8, said in an email to IBT.
Some global security experts say the debate around the bills — and the broader reaction to the attacks — could play into ISIS' hands. “I don’t fear the terrorists. I fear the reaction to it. They are based on the reaction,” said Lance James, chief scientist at Flashpoint Global Partners, a research and analytics company focused on security. "We’re giving [terrorist organizations] what they want. Not on the bill specifically but in our response.”