Fighting ISIS with Silicon Valley's Help: How Far Should Government Go?

President Barack Obama participates in a live Twitter question and answer session in the Roosevelt Room of the White House. Flickr/The White House

Making social-media companies enforce U.S. policy is the wrong approach.

During the recent Commander-in-Chief Forum, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton stated that we need to wage a war against ISIS “online, in cyberspace.” Defeating ISIS’s cyber power, she continued, required the government to “work with Silicon Valley.” Earlier this year, Clinton also stated that if elected president, she would work with social media companies to “step up” their counterterrorism efforts. To what extent can or should the U.S. government rely on a strategy of engaging with Silicon Valley to defeat terrorist organizations via cyberspace?

Terrorists are increasingly using social media to spread propaganda, plan attacks, raise funds and boast about their deeds. Investigators believe ISIS terrorists used encrypted apps, including WhatsApp to plan the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks. Earlier this year, for months on end ISIS fighters in the Middle East used Facebook group pages as “weapons bazaars” to sell heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, rockets and heat-seeking missiles. In France, an ISIS-inspired terrorist streamed a part of his gruesome attack on a police officer using Facebook Live. Social media companies have tried to counter such efforts: in May 2016, Facebook quickly suspended an attempt by ISIS to sell sex slaves on its platform, and last month Twitter announced that it had closed hundreds of thousands of terrorism-associated accounts. But terrorists continue to exploit loopholes in such platforms to wreak havoc: in 2016 alone, through mid-September, there have been over 1,200 terrorist attacks—many ISIS-related, many involving some use of social media—claiming over eleven thousand lives on almost every continent.

While terrorists are using cyberspace, the limits of U.S. government efforts to engage with Silicon Valley remain narrow. Despite the White House’s dialogue with Silicon Valley on cyberterrorism this past February, there are few laws that give clear authority to the government to compel companies to combat online radicalization or share encrypted data used by terrorists. Notably absent from the dialogue was Apple, and other Silicon Valley companies may similarly push back on government-led initiatives in the future. Congress has been unable to pass proper legislation to tackle terrorists’ use of cyberspace. The few bills currently in Congress tackling terrorism on social media provide scant guidance on what legal responsibility Silicon Valley firms have in cases when terrorists use their platforms. There are also no legal penalties on individuals using social-media platforms to spread radical propaganda. Lawsuits brought by families of victims of terrorism, alleging that Facebook, Twitter and Google are partially responsible for ISIS and Hamas attacks, will most likely be dismissed given present U.S. laws.

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