Congressional Reps Targeting Homegrown Terrorism Are Pushing A Bill That Would Allow Congress To Subpoena Citizens' Communications

from the hey-internet-rando,-the-government-wants-to-know-what-you've-been-talking-ab dept

In the name of securing the homeland, Congressional reps are tossing around the idea of regulating online speech. This isn't the first effort of its type. There's always someone on Capitol Hill who believes the nation would be safer if the First Amendment didn't cover quite so much speech. But this latest effort is coming directly from the Congressional committee that oversees homeland security efforts, as the Hill reports.

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.

The whole thing sounds a bit innocuous. At first. The bill would create a bipartisan commission to develop recommendations for Congress to address online extremism. The committee would have to balance these recommendations with existing speech protections. But it's easy to see how certain inalienable rights will become more alienable if this committee decides national security interests are more important than the rights of the people it's securing.

When you get into the details, you begin to see how this isn't really about making Congress do more to address the problem. It's about regulating online speech via Congressional action. The end result will be censorship. And self-censorship in response to the chilling effect.

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.

This isn't about moderating public posts on social media platforms. It will likely end up affecting those eventually, but the draft bill appears to allow the committee to target personal communications, which are usually private. Whether or not there are robust protections in place to strip identifying info doesn't really matter. A Congressional committee with the power to subpoena the communications of people not actually under investigation by the committee isn't the sort of thing anyone should be encouraging, no matter the rationale.

Social media platforms have been doing more to address concerns of online radicalization, but their efforts never seem to satisfy political leaders. The efforts have routinely resulted in collateral damage, not the least of which is the removal of evidence of criminal activity from the internet.

Moderation at scale is impossible. The imperfections of algorithms, combined with the human flaws of the thousands of moderators employed by social media platforms, has turned online moderation into a mess that satisfies no one and does harm to free speech protections. Any Congressional rep with the ability to perform a perfunctory social media search can find something to wave around in hearings about online radicalization and internet companies' unwillingness to clean up the web. It doesn't mean they're right. It just shows it's impossible to satisfy everyone.

In this case, the Congressional committee appears to be targeting white nationalist extremists. Just because the target has shifted to homegrown threats doesn't make the proposal any less dangerous. Even if it never results in the subpoenaed harvesting of communications, it could still encourage the federal government (and the local agencies that work with it) to expand existing social media monitoring programs. These also utilize imperfect AI and flawed humans. And they will also result in the over-policing of content. Unfortunately, these efforts will utilize actual police, so it's not just the First Amendment being threatened.

Filed Under: 4th amendment, communications, congress, moral panic, online extremism, privacy, subpoenas, terrorism


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  1. icon
    Stephen T. Stone (profile), 18 Oct 2019 @ 11:43am

    I don’t think we need knowledge of the motives of Some Asshole in Vegas to say a mass casualty shooting that left hundreds injured and several dozen people dead is “an act of terrorism”.


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