Congress Eyes Social-Media Companies As Terror Fears Mount

Dow Jones Newswires

Senior lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a bill that would require social-media companies to report online terrorist activity, escalating a dispute between Silicon Valley and Congress over technology companies' role in national security. Sens. Richard Burr (R., N.C.) and Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), the chairman and vice chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the bill would direct social-media and other firms to provide information when they discover communication that could be connected to a potential threat. A similar law already exists for companies that discover child pornography. A version of the legislation had already been included in a classified bill that authorized spending programs for intelligence agencies, but it was stripped from the final version. Now Mr. Burr and Mrs. Feinstein say they believe the measure should be revisited following the terror attacks last week in San Bernardino, Calif. "Social media is one part of a large puzzle that law-enforcement and intelligence officials must piece together to prevent future attacks," Mr. Burr said. "It's critical that Congress works together to ensure that law-enforcement and intelligence officials have the tools available to keep Americans safe." Islamic terrorist groups have used Twitter, Facebook, and other social media and messaging platforms to communicate and spread their message. The companies have sought to ban or block these users, but many easily resurface. Law-enforcement officials believe at least one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters, who killed 14 people on Dec. 2, posted a message on Facebook pledging allegiance to Islamic State, though it is unclear if that message also warned of an imminent attack. Social-media companies and Washington policy makers have been at odds for years over the tension between security and privacy. A spokesman for Twitter wouldn't comment on the specific legislation but said more generally that "violent threats and the promotion of terrorism deserve no place on Twitter and our rules make that clear. We have teams around the world actively investigating reports of rule violations, and they work with law-enforcement entities around the world when appropriate." A spokesman for Facebook didn't respond to a request for comment. The legislation has bipartisan support in Congress but it could meet resistance from privacy hawks. Enforcement of the law could be difficult as it might be hard to ascertain whether a company that transfers millions of messages a day became aware of a single threat. Sen. Ron Wyden (D., Ore.) warned that the legislation could threaten the existing cooperation between law enforcement and technology companies. "I'm opposed to this proposal because I believe it will undermine that collaboration and lead to less reporting of terrorist activity, not more, " he said. "It would create a perverse incentive for companies to avoid looking for terrorist content on their own networks, because if they saw something and failed to report it they would be breaking the law, but if they stuck their heads in the sand and avoided looking for terrorist content they would be absolved of responsibility." The three-page bill is called the Requiring Reporting of Online Terrorist Activity Act. Write to Damian Paletta at damian.paletta@wsj.com

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