House Homeland Security Committee advances online extremism bill

House Homeland Security Committee advances online extremism bill
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A House panel on Wednesday voted to advance a bill aimed at combating the scourge of extremist content online despite ongoing pushback from civil liberties groups and Republicans on the committee. 

The House Homeland Security Committee unanimously voted to advance the National Commission on Online Platforms and Homeland Security Act, greenlighting one of the first legislative efforts to address internet extremism and bigotry after a string of mass shooters were tied to white supremacist online footprints this year. 

“Through our oversight of the social media companies, it is evident that this is one of those areas where the private sector needs the government to be a convener,” committee Chairman Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonBipartisan bill to secure election tech advances to House floor Chad Wolf becomes acting DHS secretary Senators urge Trump to fill vacancies at DHS MORE (D-Miss.) said during his opening remarks.

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The bill, which has undergone several drafts over the past few months, would create a 12-member bipartisan commission of experts to research “how online platforms have been exploited to carry out mass-casualty targeted violence” — including acts of domestic and international terrorism as well as “covert foreign state influence campaigns.”

That commission, with members appointed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, would be tasked with drawing up a final report and recommendations around how social media companies can address terrorists on their platforms while still promoting “free speech.” 

The group would have subpoena authority to obtain relevant communications about extremism from the tech companies, though the members are prohibited from sharing any of that information with government bodies. 

Separately, the bill would direct a Department of Homeland Security official to study whether online platforms enable or advance “acts of targeted violence.” The under secretary of Homeland Security for science and technology would then be tasked to develop “voluntary approaches” for the social media platforms to implement based on their findings.

The Southern Poverty Law Center and Counter Extremism Project have both endorsed the bill, which was officially introduced on Tuesday. 

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But behind the scenes, the Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee have sought feedback and endorsements from top U.S. civil liberties and privacy groups for months. Many of the groups have pushed back on the proposal, saying most efforts by the U.S. government to intervene in online speech will amount to a violation of the First Amendment.

“Although we understand that some organizations may have some remaining reservations, the Chairman believes that advancing the legislation in Committee ... is an important first step to making online platforms more secure against domestic and international terrorism while promoting free speech and innovation on the internet,” a committee spokesman told The Hill last week. 

The tension highlights the enormous challenges facing lawmakers concerned about violence inspired by white supremacist attitudes, which are often incubated and spread online. While there are several fringe networks known as breeding grounds for neo-Nazis and white extremists, many of the top proponents of those attitudes maintain profiles on top social networks like Facebook and Twitter. And critics say the Silicon Valley giants reward inflammatory content through an emphasis on attracting attention and interaction.