FCC says it can't shut down ISIS websites

The head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday shot down suggestions that the agency could take down websites used by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and other terrorist groups.

Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) asked Friday during a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee whether the FCC has the authority to block such websites and social media accounts, following last week's deadly terrorist attacks in Paris. 

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"Isn't there something we can do under existing law to shut those Internet sites down?" Barton asked. "And I know they pop up like weeds, but once they do pop up, shut them down and turn the Internet addresses over to the appropriate law enforcement agencies to try and track them down."

"We cannot underestimate the challenge," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler responded. "I'm not sure our authority extends to [shut down the websites], but I do think there are specific things we can do."

Wheeler similarly told Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) that the commission does not have the authority to target the social media accounts of gang leaders in the United States that are contributing to urban violence. 

"We do not have jurisdiction over Facebook and all the other edge providers. We do not intend to assert jurisdiction over them," Wheeler said. 

But the chairman said he can use the FCC's bully pulpit to press tech CEOs on the issue, such as Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg.

"I will call Mark Zuckerberg this afternoon to raise the issue you've raised and the issue Mr. Barton raised. And I'm sure he is concerned as well and he'll have some thoughts," Wheeler said. 

Many major social media companies have abuse policies that prohibit and remove accounts that are flagged for promoting terrorism or violence.

Wheeler offered other areas where the commission could take action. He specifically mentioned the rash of vandalism to fiberoptic cables in the California Bay Area.

Local news outlets have reported on cuts to private fiberoptic cables owned by major telecom companies such as AT&T that provide the backbone of Internet service. AT&T has offered a quarter million dollar reward for information about the attacks. 

While law enforcement has the authority to investigate the crimes, the FCC maintains a confidential reporting system that requires various telecommunications carriers to report outages around the country. 

Wheeler said the system, called the Network Outage Reporting System, could be mined to put together larger trends about outages. But he said that is currently impossible because the system is running on outdated technology, being held together by "bailing wire and glue."

"This experience has called out the importance of network security," Wheeler said. "And if we can't connect the dots — you know after 9/11 we kept hearing about 'we couldn't connect the dots, we couldn't connect the dots' — we have the ability inside our system to use big data to connect the dots, but we don't have the capacity."

The FBI has been investigating the crimes, which have not been traced back to any particular group or person.