Technology

Civil liberties groups sound alarm over online extremism bill

Civil liberties and technology groups have been sharply critical of a draft bill from House Homeland Security Committee Democrats on dealing with online extremism, saying it would violate First Amendment rights and could result in the surveillance of vulnerable communities.

Over the summer, Democrats circulated an early draft of the bill seeking input from stakeholders, but the proposal received almost immediate pushback. Civil liberties groups want to rework the bill entirely, questioning whether government should play any significant role in identifying and combating online extremism.

Democrats had planned to mark up the legislation last month, but pulled the bill at the last minute, with a spokesman telling The Hill it was "not ready." The spokesman said the committee is still hoping to mark it up by the end of the month, calling the legislation "still fluid."

The opposition from civil society groups is another challenge in an already tough legislative path. Democratic lawmakers had already faced concerns from Republicans, who say the bill should scale back its scope.

"Right now, the Homeland Security Committee's efforts should be narrowly focused on addressing illegal terrorist activity not protected by the Constitution, while ensuring that the First Amendment is respected," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the committee, said in a statement to The Hill.

The wrangling over the bill is highlighting how complicated it can be for the federal government to act against online radicalization without running into First Amendment concerns.

According to a copy of the bill circulated in September and obtained by The Hill, the National Commission on Online Platforms and Homeland Security Act would create a 12-member commission of experts who would work up recommendations for Congress to address online extremism while taking "individual privacy civil liberties" into account. The members would be appointed by Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the president.

The panel would study how online platforms are "utilized in furtherance of domestic or international terrorism, other illegal activity that poses a homeland or national security threat to the United States, or to carry out a foreign influence campaign that poses a homeland or national security threat to the United States."

A source familiar with the legislation noted that the committee has circulated the bill to stakeholders several times over the past few months, but civil liberties groups are still pushing back against it.

"A governmental entity telling platforms how to do content moderation raises some serious First Amendment concerns," another source familiar with the bill told The Hill. 

The government-appointed body would be given the power to subpoena communications, a sticking point that raised red flags for First Amendment advocates concerned about government surveillance. 

A source familiar with the legislation told The Hill they were immediately concerned that the subpoena power could be abused, questioning whether it would unintentionally create another avenue for the government to obtain private conversations on social media between Americans. 

The draft bill would require companies to "make reasonable efforts" to remove any personally identifiable information from any communications they handed over. But that provision has not satisfied tech and privacy groups.

Sources from civil liberties groups told The Hill they felt that the commission would inevitably intrude on free speech protections.  

The legislation would separately craft an interagency task force for recommendations on how federal agencies can address the threat of social media manipulation. That group would include representatives from the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Justice among others. That group would also be required to report on issues including foreign interference online.  

Another concern for critics is that the proposed commission would recommend amending tech's prized legal liability protections, enshrined in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. Section 230, a controversial provision, protects social media platforms from being sued over content posted by their users or how they choose to moderate those posts from users.

"I understand that members of Congress want to do something and they're frustrated by that but there's a reason why we have those protections for free expression," one source said.

House Homeland Security Democrats began working up the legislation earlier this year in the wake of a slew of mass shootings allegedly perpetrated by far-right extremists with radical online footprints. 

Several countries have since taken action to address the issue of radicalization and violent content online. And at a global summit in Paris, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and French President Emmanuel Macron announced the "Christchurch Pledge," a set of principles aimed at improving coordination between government and social media companies to crack down on bigoted and extreme content. 

Tech companies have pledged to dedicate more resources towards removing white supremacists and neo-Nazis from their platforms and better coordinating with law enforcement. 

But the Trump administration has walked a more cautious line, citing First Amendment concerns about attempts to intervene in speech. The White House declined to sign the Christchurch Pledge, putting the U.S. at odds with 17 countries and every top social media company.

The U.S. has a more expansive set of laws on how to handle online speech from international terrorist organizations, which are defined clearly by the government. But the House legislation does not stop at content from international terrorist groups - it cites the need to look into how social media sites can be exploited by "individuals involved in domestic terrorism" as well.

On Sept. 4, the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University sent a public letter to Congress laying out why enacting laws around "domestic terrorism" could harm vulnerable populations, including immigrants and people of color. 

The letter came as various federal lawmakers were introducing bills to penalize or criminalize "domestic terrorism," an effort to dedicate more resources to combatting white supremacist and far-right violence.

The Brennan Center urged congressional leaders to reject that approach, including any "social media monitoring" to combat the rise of far-right extremism. 

"We oppose the expansion of surveillance authorities, including social media monitoring, as well as the expansion of the security infrastructure," the group wrote in the letter, signed also by the American Civil Liberties Union, Muslim Advocates and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

On the other side, lawmakers and terrorism experts have argued it is impossible for the government to properly address the threat of white extremism unless such groups are designated as terrorist entities. 

There is also public pressure for Congress to act.

Last year, white nationalist extremists were responsible for at least 50 deaths in the U.S., a spike from the previous year. And following a string of shootings by far-right extremists this year, the Department of Homeland Security designated white nationalism a national security threat. 

That has also reignited the debate over how to address the online spaces where extremists gather. Critics have argued that mainstream platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter will not act to take down extremist content on their own accord, pushing government to intervene. 

Others worry that extremist voices are only moving into other unmoderated platforms.

Earlier this year, the House Homeland Security Committee subpoenaed Jim Watkins, the owner of fringe network 8chan. Several mass shooters this year have posted hateful content on fringe networks including 8chan, and committee staff pressed Watkins over how he deals with that problem.

Watkins argued his website is one of the only social networks that strictly follows the First Amendment, according to prepared remarks released by his lawyer. 

But others note that private companies are allowed to develop their own content policies, protected by Section 230.

For now, the House Homeland Security Committee is pushing ahead. The panel has returned to stakeholders with several drafts, and sources characterized staff as open to criticism.

"There is concern about the unusually broad scope of the commission's mandate and authority," another source familiar with the legislation told The Hill. "And there's still an opportunity to address these issues before moving forward." 

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