Free Speech Or Material Support To Terrorists? Twitter Begins Cracking Down On Hateful Tweets

Last week, Twitter reported it is cracking down on offensive, hateful or menacing tweets that they say cross the red line from free speech into abuse. This is part of the overhauling of Twitter’s safety policy, which includes bolstering the team responsible for enforcing it. Twitter has, in fact, tripled the size of the squad tasked with protecting users, which has resulted in a five-fold increase in the speed of response to complaints.

Twitter is now “heavily” invested in detecting and limiting the reach of abusive content, says general counsel Vijaya Gadde.

The popular micro-blogging site is also taking steps to halt the use of anonymously created Twitter accounts used to intimidate or silence targeted people. “We are changing our approach to this problem, in some ways that won’t be readily apparent and in others that will be,” Gadde said. “We are also overhauling our safety policies to give our teams a better framework from which to protect vulnerable users.”

At the same time, Instagram has jumped on board and has begun addressing terrorism, following Facebook’s lead. Facebook recently updated its “community standards” which provide users with more clarity on what content is acceptable in terms of violence, hate speech and other contentious topics.

Instagram’s new community guidelines state that “sharing graphic images for sadistic pleasure or to glorify violence is never allowed.” And, Facebook’s updated community doctrine states that it will not allow a presence from groups advocating “terrorist activity, organized criminal activity or promoting hate.”

Twitter has also updated its privacy policy, which is interesting in that it treats users in the United States and users elsewhere in the world differently. If you live in the US, your account is controlled by San Francisco-based Twitter Inc. If you are located anywhere else in the world, your account is managed by Twitter International Company in Dublin, Ireland.

Why is this noteworthy? Well, because Twitter Inc is governed by US law — and because of that it has to comply with NSA-driven court requests for data. Data stored in Ireland is not subject to the same regulations and Ireland is known for having some of the most relaxed privacy laws in Europe. Facebook is said to also be employing the same strategy.

And, in a sudden move Twitter shut down over 10,000 accounts linked to ISIS — in one day. A Twitter representative confirmed to news outlets that its violations department did indeed suspended 10,000+ accounts on one day, April 2, “for tweeting violent threats”. The Twitter representative spoke on the condition of anonymity and said that the surge in suspensions was due to a team of vigilantes who have unleashed a counterattack against ISIS online and who have been diligent in reporting accounts for policy violations. “We received a large amount of reports.” he said. In other words, the account suspensions have been attributed to #OpISIS, an operation of hacktivist collective Anonymous, which seeks to essentially scrub ISIS off the Internet.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram taking action is related to the fact that ISIS is recruiting online at a faster rate than are being killed on the ground. Additionally, the FBI has come right out and said that we are losing the battle to stop ISIS online. ISIS recruits online using social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr, Vine, Kik, WhatsApp and, though its main source is by far, Twitter.

There are other businesses, however, who provide Internet-based services such as website hosting, IP hiding services, website optimization, and other services to terrorist groups. Several have been identified, but the provider with the largest amount of terrorist accounts is CloudFlare, a San Franscico-based company who, by their own description:

“protects and accelerates any website online. Once your website is a part of the CloudFlare community, its web traffic is routed through our intelligent global network. We automatically optimize the delivery of your web pages so your visitors get the fastest page load times and best performance. We also block threats and limit abusive bots and crawlers from wasting your bandwidth and server resources. The result: CloudFlare-powered websites see a significant improvement in performance and a decrease in spam and other attacks.”

CloudFlare has been the subject of controversy in the past due to its providing services to terrorist organizations. Various news organizations have reported on it, some in opposition and some in support. Like CEO Matthew Prince, supporters cite the right to free speech while detractors say CloudFlare is providing material support to terrorists, which is a violation of the Patriot Act.

But, free speech under the First Amendment only goes so far. It does not protect incitement to commit an unlawful act, threats or solicitation to commit a crime. The primary purpose of ISIS accounts online is to recruit people to commit acts of terrorism or provide support to those people. Many direct threats are lobbed from these websites, in particular to the United States, and also to specific individuals. A recent document discovered on JustPasteIt.It included names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses of Westerners (mostly Americans) who ISIS supporters were asked to target.

Unlike Twitter and others, CloudFlare has refused to block service to ISIS accounts. In addition to being disgusted with CloudFlare’s terrorist clients, some are also uneasy with some of CEO Matthew Prince’s connections. For instance, CloudFlare was given $50,000 in funding from Brad Burnham, a managing partner at Union Square Venture. But, Burnham also sits on an FCC advisory board. TechCrunch reports:

“The story goes that Burnham was on the FCC’s committee on Net Neutrality alongside CloudFlare cofounder Michelle Zatlyn. After they got to know each other, and Burnham proved what an asset he could be in potential Net Neutrality-related obstacles for CloudFlare, Prince and Zatlyn came to the conclusion that they wanted USV and Burnham as an investor.”

A movement on Twitter has been launched, spearheaded by Ghost Security, which is driving public awareness regarding this issue and is applying social pressure on CloudFlare and other businesses with terrorist clients.

Meanwhile, what is the government currently doing to try to limit the spread of terrorism online? Well, for one thing they are frustrated by tech companies’ reluctance to expanded security measures. “There needs to be an effort to work cooperatively with these private American companies to try to develop an industry standard on how you deal with these things,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, (D-TX) said, adding that, “drawing a line can be very tough as the discussion here today [Tuesday] demonstrated, but we should look for best practices among these companies.”

The Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing to strategize how to go about limiting social media use by terrorists. After all, social networks comprise 90% of terrorist groups’ online activities, according to Mark Wallace, CEO of the Counter Extremism Project. But, companies really have no incentives to remove terrorist content, according to Evan Kohlmann, a counter-terrorism expert and chief innovation officer of Flashpoint Partners. He indicated they could use methods they already have in place for filtering out illegal content.

Chairman of the Nonproliferation and Trade Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ted Poe (R-TX) stated in no uncertain terms the grim dilemma confronting the United States as terrorists misuse online platforms:

“If social media is being used to help radicalize thousands of people and raise millions of dollars from many more, the question all this raises is this: Why is no one shutting them down? Because American companies aren’t. And nor is the American government….To put it bluntly, private American companies should not be operating as the propaganda megaphone of foreign terrorist organizations….So what needs to change?”

Not all speech is free and aiding terrorist groups who are campaigning online is a violation of anti-terror laws, says a top Justice Department official. In fact, if you assist in spreading ISIS propaganda on Twitter or Facebook, you could go to prison. This disclosure raises questions about where the government will draw the line between support for a terrorist group and free speech.

Extremism online was the main topic of a recent summit on radicalism. John Carlin, the assistant attorney general for national security, explained that authorities could attempt to subdue ISIS’ violent online PR operation by essentially trying propagandists as terrorists. He suggested the Justice Department could prosecute individuals for providing material support to a terrorist organization. His remarks are believed to be the first time a U.S. official has ever warned that people who assist ISIS with online media could face criminal prosecution.

Carlin also said that the United States could use the material support law to prosecute providing “technical expertise” to a designated terrorist organization. He said that spreading the word for ISIS online could count as such expertise.

The most notable and controversial case of prosecuting speech linked to terrorism occurred in 2013, did not focus on actions taken exclusively online and involved a man who attempted to join an al Qaeda training camp in Yemen. The United States won a conviction against Tarek Mehanna, a Massachusetts pharmacist who tried unsuccessfully to fight with al Qaeda in Iraq but also translated several jihadist tracts and videos into English so that they could be distributed online and spur others to join the terror group.

The key legal issue in Mehanna’s case was whether his translations were an expression of sympathy for the ideology of al Qaeda— which would be protected — or work done explicitly to support al Qaeda by assisting its operations. Mehanna was convicted by a jury under the material support statute and he sentenced to 17½ years in prison.

But because the courts didn’t fully settle the constitutional issues in this case, it’s uncertain as to how the material support law would be applied against people who provide aid to ISIS’ online offensive.

Terrorists online present national security officials with new challenges, Carlin said — but, terrorist plying their trade online is hardly new. It has been going on for years. Authorities have simply been slow to address it.

In another case, Christians United for Israel (CUFI) began a petition campaign appealing to the U.S. government to pursue charges against Twitter, under The Patriot Act’s 18 U.S.C. § 2339A for providing service to Hamas. As it turns out, however, section 2339A does not provide the legal authority to prosecute social media sites because specific intent to further the organization’s terrorist activities is required.

18 U.S.C. § 2339B could, however, provide the necessary legal authority. Section 2339B outlaws:

“’knowingly provid[ing] material support or resources to a foreign terrorist organization.’ A conviction for providing material support to terrorists requires that the accused provided material support and that the accused knew the beneficiary of the support was a designated terrorist organization or knew that it engaged in terrorism.
The statute defines material support as ‘any property, tangible or intangible, or service, including currency or monetary instruments, or financial securities, financial services, lodging, training, expert advice or assistance, safehouses, false documentation or identification, communications equipment, facilities, weapons, lethal substances, explosives, personnel (1 or more individuals who may be or include oneself), and transportation, except medicine or religious materials.’”

This is not an issue of free speech because threats and incitement are not protected speech. It is a question of law. But, how US authorities proceed with addressing social media platforms and other Internet-based businesses is anyone’s guess.

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