Sunday, August 02, 2015

Hillary Clinton's proposal about Twitter could threaten Section 230, end user-generated content if she was really serious

Democratic presidential candidate (and former secretary of state) Hillary Clinton has been reported as saying she wants foreign terrorist groups off Twitter (and presumably Facebook and all other social media, including Blogger and Wordpress). This was discussed on CNN Saturday afternoon, and the Wall Street Journal has a brief story by Peter Nicholas and Damian Paletta (July 28) here.  A UK site has another version of the story by Tom Batcheloer July 29 here
The focus is, of course, ISIS right now, because of the reports of thousands of temporary Twitter accounts (which Twitter closes as soon as it finds them even now). “Vulnerable” young adults, mostly in disadvantaged (often but not always Muslim) may find them.  Tweets typically link to sites on the “Dark Web” that are not indexed by major search engines and that are hosted offshore (often in Syria, or other non-Western places). 

CNN showed a mother (I think in Minnesota, in the Somali community – and I lived in Minneapolis myself for six years, 1997-2003, where the community, like the Hmong, caused little controversy) begging for the government and for tech companies to stop foreign elements from recruiting their kids.

It would be apparent that such “bans” could focus on other “enemies”, too, such as North Korea, or perhaps certain activities from Russia (Putin’s aggression) and China, or even white supremacy (Gode Davis’s unfinished “American lynching”) within this country.  Pretty soon, this becomes a matter of identifying foes.

One big issue is that typically “recruited” users go into encrypted mode.  Authorities claim that, despite the powers of the NSA, they often can’t break the encryption.  Rand Paul’s “Get a warrant” makes sense here.  But once the FBI (or state or city police department) has a properly supervised warrant from a court, it needs the tools do decrypt.  Service providers and telecommunications companies should be expected to provide technical assistance to law enforcement in breaking encryption when there is proper court supervision (not just the FISA court).

But it isn’t really tweets or Facebook postings (including comment spam, which I have noticed recent) that lead to recruiting, it’s the overseas sites that they sometimes link to (usually non-English, often Arabic). 

I can imagine the legislation that can and probably will be proposed.  (Watch Electronic Frontier Foundation for posts on this.)  One obvious comparison would be the old Communications Decency Act of 1996.  Section 230 obviously could be put at risk.  But I also recall some provisions of the “censorship” section, struck down in Supreme Court in 1997 (I had attended the oral arguments from the 3-minute line on a snowy March 19, 1997) which, according to some people, would have made it illegal even to link to certain sites (like dealing with abortion).

There is, as noted before, an issue with distinguishing between “promoting” brutality as propaganda by showing it, and reporting it as news.   It is impossible to discuss violent extremism without appearing to promote it, except perhaps by using some restraint in the use of images and videos. It’s also important to remember that conquest by brutality (whether motivated by religion, nationalism, or secular ideology) has happened repeatedly throughout history (look at WWII), but just never was shown on social media before. 

And then there is the whole idea of “asymmetry”, the most outstanding feature of which is “user generated content”, often searchable, without gatekeepers.  This has become the new normal and is perceived as protected by the First Amendment, but it is not necessarily clear if “freedom of the press” always protects “amateurism” is sufficiently legally or legislatively challenged.  While UGC provides a great way to enrich the discussion of issues and keep the major media outlets (and politicians) honest and accountable, it is also easy to abuse by determined adversaries.
One other aspect of all of this:  it probably is more constitutionally acceptable to limit speech that aids an "enemy", if the country is really at war.  (Remember how Woodrow Wilson made criticizing  the military draft a form of "sedition" during WWI.)  But asymmetric war (which could be carried out against ordinary individuals and has been in rare cases) raises unprecedented possible interpretations. 
Clinton’s wishes don’t sound very achievable (other than by what social media companies already do enforcing TOS) without shutting down unsupervised user generated content.
Picture: from US Army Quartermaster Museum at Fort Lee, VA

No comments: