By Trevor Timm
The White House and its national security team are set to meet Friday with the country’s largest tech companies, like Facebook and Google, to discuss how they can help “disrupt” Isis’s online activities (that cringe-worthy phrase is theirs, not mine). On the agenda: censorship and invasive anti-privacy and security measures that could affect not just Isis supporters, but everyone who uses the internet.
You can hate Isis while still being disturbed about the lengths the government is going to pressure these tech companies. There are so many shady things going on with this meeting it’s hard to know where to start.
First, tech companies were reportedly lured into the meeting with the promise that it was going to be about how to prevent Isis from using social media to amplify its message (we’ll get to that later on), but then, as the Guardian’s Danny Yadron reported, US officials pulled a “bait and switch” on the tech companies and cornered them into discussing encryption as well. FBI director Jim Comey’s “participation in the meeting was on the condition of encryption being on the agenda,”according to the Washington Post.
Despite the huge security benefits to encryption and the fact that it has not played a significant role in any of the recent terrorist attacks, the FBI has been on a warpath to get tech companies to stop using end-to-end encryption in some of their communications tools, essentially asking tech giants to give the government a ‘backdoor’ to make sure there is not any communication platform that they cannot spy on.
This is a dangerously short-sighted move that will not only weaken internet security for everyone and put everyone’s privacy at further risk, but will also give Russia, China and other authoritarian countries the green light to demand the exact same thing to crush dissent.
While it’s not widely discussed, there are actually plenty of government officials who are smart enough to realize this and are strong advocates for encryption – like representatives at the Commerce Department, the FTC and most importantly, the White House’s Science and Technology Office. Yet none of these agencies – who have many qualified technologists who can clearly explain the pitfalls to creating encryption backdoors – were invited to the meeting. Instead it’s the national security team – whose members have, time and time again,demonstrated ignorance when it comes to how technology works – who will be setting the agenda.
Then there’s the question of tech companies cooperating more with the government on blocking and censoring Isis’s propaganda arm (since the US seems to be so inept at combating it themselves). Isis’s ability to recruit may be concerning, but does it make anyone else uncomfortable that the White House and FBI are pushing so hard behind closed doors for private companies to censor so much content? There’s a reason Congress has not passed a law banning Isis propaganda or the Justice Department does not get a court order to censor it: because criticizing the US government – even when wrapped in disgusting and vague calls for violence – is, in many cases, protected by the First Amendment. What happens when they start using these unofficial channels to start asking for censorship of other content that they couldn’t censor through legal means?
But this may be besides the point: what more are tech companies supposed to do? Promoting terrorism is already a violation their terms of service, and news report after news report has shown that they are constantly spending incredible manpower taking down, in some cases, thousands of Isis-related accounts per day.
Their trigger finger is already so quick it has led to some pretty high-profile and horrible mistakes. Just last week, Twitter temporarily banned Iyad El-Baghdadi, a prominent anti-Isis critic, and refused to apologize for it because a newspaper confused his (common) Islamic name with that of the Isis leader.
This all begs the question of what, exactly, government officials hope Silicon Valley actually does, since they already work to ban terrorism-related content and are unlikely to budge on backdoors. Build tools that will allow the government to surveil the tens of billions of web posts that are published daily? The government does have much more legal latitude to surveil public posts rather than private ones, but that doesn’t mean we should be creating tools to make that easier for them when those tools can quickly be turned into surveillance devices of all sorts that could go after much more than just terrorism.
Do they want automated censoring of posts? That is a recipe for disaster and will likely ensnare untold millions of posts that are not only protected by the First Amendment, but don’t violate any of these tech companies’ increasingly strict rules for what constitutes acceptable posting. Countless people post about Isis per day in various forms of commentary, the vast majority of which is condemnation. The amount of false positives that will flag and censor law-abiding users will be staggering.
Tech companies themselves have a First Amendment right to devise policies that will allow them to block anyone they wish. But if the government wants them to go above and beyond through censorship and surveillance, they should be using the legal process, not backroom deals. For years, civil society groups have pressured tech companies to require legal orders before handing over users’ data since there were so many scandals involving voluntary and legally dubioussurveillance during the Bush years. Do we really want to go back to those times, when it was just a wink and a nod between giant corporation and law enforcement?
By the way, many intelligence officials often find Isis-related social media poststo be a good – and in some cases, the only – real time window into what Isis is actually doing. So be careful what you wish for.