New Bill Could Turn Facebook, Twitter into Terrorist Watchdogs

Watch what you say online because the U.S. Federal government wants Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks to report on what you say. The Senate Intelligence Committee has approved a bill that would require social networking services to report whenever you post something deemed to be terrorist activity.

Social networks may have to report what we say to the governmentSocial networks may have to report what we say to the government

The bill details says terrorist-related posts include wording related to "explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction," according to Reuters. Considering the number of ongoing hate-related killings in the United States and around the world, it's no surprise that the government is looking for new ways to stop—or at least track—potential killers.

What isn't clear, at least not yet, is just how broad the government's interpretation of terrorist activity online will be. If the government encompasses too much, pop culture phrases like, "Nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure," could land clever Facebook and Twitter users in hot water. That may be a bit hyperbolic, but we don't know just how deep into our social posts the U.S. government wants to go.

The bill also raises another question: should social network services act as the eyes and ears of the government?

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google+, and other social networks already have anti-hate and anti-terrorist policies in place and routinely remove content that violates their terms. They don't, however, report those incidents to government agencies. This bill, should it become law, will change that.

Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, who also sponsored the bill said,

Twitter, FB and YouTube all, as I understand it, remove content on their sites that come to their attention if it violates their terms of service, including terrorism. The companies do not proactively monitor their sites to identify such content nor do they inform the FBI when they identify or remove their content. I believe they should.

Telling social network and communication service providers, meaning services that let us post other kinds of content online, they have to monitor their users on this level sets a dangerous precedent, too. If Twitter has to monitor what we say, the government could move on to telling email hosts they have to parse through all of our messages looking for terrorism-related words‚ or that Apple must decrypt our Messages conversations so they can be scanned, too.

At a minimum, the bill feels like an invasion of our privacy. Without solid guidelines as to what the government is looking for, it could lead to companies reporting content that falls outside of the scope of the bill, too. If Twitter and Facebook don't know what to hand over, over reporting would be the safe move even though users would potentially face unnecessary investigations.

The bill is up for a vote on the Senate floor, but isn't on the schedule yet. Assuming the bill passes, it still has a long way to go before becoming a law.

For now, that means social networks don't have to report content that's deemed terrorist-related to the FBI, but that day may be coming. If so, hopefully terrorist terms will have a narrow definition, or we may have to start paying closer attention to what we say online or risk ending up on a watch list.