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Senators revive social media bill after terror attacks

Critics argue the legislation tramples on the First Amendment and that it’s not the job of social media companies to take on such a role.

In the wake of the Paris and San Bernardino attacks, two senators have reintroduced legislation requiring tech companies, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, to alert federal law enforcement about online terrorist activity. 

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina insist the bill doesn’t mandate that companies monitor customers or take any additional action, only that they report potential terrorist activity if they become aware of it. It’s modeled after an existing law requiring tech companies to report online child pornography.

“We’re in a new age where terrorist groups like ISIL are using social media to reinvent how they recruit and plot attacks,” said Feinstein, vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, in a statement. “The stakes have never been higher and having cooperation with these outlets will help save lives here and abroad,” said Burr, who chairs the committee.

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Meanwhile, critics argue the legislation is too vague, that it tramples on the First Amendment, and that it’s not the job of social media companies to take on such a role. 

“It’s a mistake to require social media companies to act as arms of the national security state,” wrote Michael W. Macleod-Ball, chief of staff of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “It’s not their job. It’s not what they do best. The government already monitors much of this information, since so much social media content is in the public domain already.”

Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon has also said he is against the legislation, arguing it will lead to less reporting of terrorist activity and that social media companies already do a good job of working with authorities. The bill, Wyden said in a statement,  “would create a perverse incentive for companies to avoid looking for terrorist content on their own networks, because if they saw something and failed to report it they would be breaking the law, but if they stuck their heads in the sand and avoided looking for terrorist content they would be absolved of responsibility.”

Feinstein had previously tried to include similar language as part of a Senate’s Intelligence Authorization Act but it was eventually removed following objections. The renewed push comes as suspected San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik reportedly posted her support to ISIL on her Facebook page before the attack, which killed 14 people, on Dec. 2.

Feinstein took to Twitter to address critics who say the legislation is an attack on the First Amendment. "The bill does not criminalize free speech. It requires warning of potential terrorist behavior," she wrote.