Spy panel drops controversial mandate on Web firms, amid pressure

Getty Images

Leaders of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee have abandoned an effort to force social media companies such as Facebook and Twitter to report instances of “terrorist activity” to the federal government.

The decision from committee leaders comes after deep opposition from tech companies who had protested the measure as well as Sen. Ron WydenRon WydenWhy you should care about National Whistleblower AppreciatIon Day Dems push to require presidential nominees to release tax returns Legislators privacy fight coincides with FCC complaint MORE (D-Ore.), who blocked it from moving to the Senate floor. 

ADVERTISEMENT
“Going after terrorist recruitment and activity online is a serious mission that demands a serious response from our law enforcement and intelligence agencies,” Wyden said in a statement celebrating the dropping of the measure on Monday. 

“Social media companies aren’t qualified to judge which posts amount to ‘terrorist activity,’ and they shouldn’t be forced against their will to create a Facebook Bureau of Investigations to police their users’ speech.”

The controversial provision was tucked into the annual policy bill for the nation’s 16 federal spy agencies earlier this year.

It would have required tech companies to tell the government when they come across “actual knowledge of any terrorist activity” on their sites. The measure would not have required the companies to do any new surveillance of their networks, supporters noted, but would instead merely require that they notify the authorities when they are alerted to it. 

“It is really the beginning of saying: ‘Hey Mr. and Mrs. American technology, you have a responsibility, too,’” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.), the panel’s top Democrat and the strongest supporter of the provision, said at a hearing earlier this summer. 

Officials at the FBI and other agencies have warned that the Islamic extremists have grown more adept at using social media and are increasingly turning to the websites to seek out recruits across the globe.

“There is a device — almost a devil on their shoulder — all day long saying, ‘Kill, kill, kill, kill,’ ” FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers in July.

The measure made few waves when the bill passed through the Intelligence Committee with the support of every member — including Wyden — in June.

But the pressure increased in recent weeks.

Given that standing firm on the social media provision could have threatened to sink the whole bill, Feinstein reluctantly agreed to drop it, a spokesman said. 

“Senator Feinstein still believes it’s important to block terrorists’ use of social media to recruit and incite violence and will continue to work on achieving that goal,” spokesman Tom Mentzer told The Hill in an email.

She “regrets having to remove the provision because she is well aware that social media platforms are a major communication network for terrorists,” he added.