Hey. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube. Get in here... so we can shake your hands – US Senate cyber-terror panel

So much for that grilling

Makes no difference to Facebook and pals if terror material is online or not

Which company representative flagged up this untested, unmonitored, largely theoretical program? None of them – it was the chairman of the committee himself, Senator John Thune (R-SD) in his official opening statement.

Senators even let the Silicon Valley executives get away with claiming that cleaning up their services and platforms from such content was an intrinsic part of their business, that they had a clear "commercial incentive" to make sure it didn't appear.

No doubt it is pure coincidence that the new programs, such as they are, only arrived on the scene after specific laws were passed and more were threatened.

It is, of course, absolute bunkum that Facebook et al are at a commercial disadvantage if they host violent content: it won't make the slightest different to the vast majority of their users if the content is there or not, and their entire business model is built on the simple sharing of content.

The sole voice of dissent invited to the panel was that of Clint Watts from the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He warned in his testimony [PDF] that more needed to be done: "Social media companies realize the damage of these bad actors far too late. They race to implement policies to prevent the last information attack, but have yet to anticipate the next abuse of their social media platforms by emerging threats."

It costs the social media giants time and money to restrict content – which is why they are so keen on automated ways of removing it. They already have engineers writing code and tweaking existing algorithms – let’s use them rather than hire an expensive army of video and post reviewers.

Culture wars

But even harder to fix is the work culture of these moneybags businesses that were formed from an engineering and technology utopian standpoint. They are inherently and fiercely protective of their own view of themselves as wonderful enablers of communication where any problems can be solved with a software tweak rather than requiring a cultural overhaul.

That was evident when Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH) argued that the companies would inevitably have to adopt the generally accepted concept of "see something, say something," where the public is encouraged to report anything suspicious to the cops or Feds. She gave a clear example of where YouTube's failure to report extremist content on an account run by Boston marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev meant that the FBI missed his Al-Qaeda sympathies when vetting him for US citizenship.

Each of the company reps gave the same answer: that they work with law enforcement when it goes through the correct legal process and will report content if it fits certain specific criteria – mostly a threat to life.

Hassan responded: "I will say that the 'see something, say something' campaign is premised on something a little bit different. It is premised on if you think you see something; not 'does this meet my definition of imminent danger'? If they see something suspicious, they are asked to step up."

The cultural gulf between a senator who sees YouTube and others as the gatekeepers, overseers, and ultimately controllers of content, and the company representatives who see themselves as simply providing the means by which netizens can share information could not have been more stark.

That is not to say that Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are not serious about tackling the issue – they are. And they are making changes that should significantly reduce the problem – at least to levels where they won't be hauled in front of a congressional committee to explain themselves.


But it is far too premature for senators to take the threat of legislation off the table as some have already done. Senator Mike Lee (R-UT), for example, called even the idea of fining the corporations for failing to remove illegal content "distressing."

It is possible that Facebook, Twitter, and chums, will slowly reform themselves to suit their new environment – but it is a virtual certainty that such change will only come about thanks to external threats.

As for Congress, it has its own dysfunctions to deal with. Despite the hearing dealing with the serious issue of terrorism and extremist content, the highest ranking Democrat on the committee was unable to prevent himself from making it a partisan political issue.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) focused his statement on the interference of the presidential election by Russia and the recent FCC decision on net neutrality.

Likewise, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) could not stop himself from turning the whole thing into another one of his conspiratorial mini-campaigns, accusing the tech companies of expressing political bias against right-wing ideologies, wrongly asserting that anti-abortion groups were being silenced and that Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) was censored. Moments after he finished ignoring the responses to his false statements, Cruz stood up and left the committee room. Brief closing statements then began.

Unfortunately for the billions of users of these companies' services – and for broader society – it is only likely to be in the halls of Congress that the commercial imperatives of internet giants are tempered by the societal demands of the country as a whole.

We are not there yet, despite the stats and the wonderful array of new policies outlined today by social media heavyweights. ®

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