On Tuesday, at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX) inquired if the Federal Communications Commission has the power to shut down websites used by the Islamic State and other terrorist groups.
“ISIS and the terrorist networks can’t beat us militarily, but they are really trying to use the Internet and all of the social media to try to intimidate and beat us psychologically,” Barton told FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler:
Isn’t there something we can do under existing law to shut those Internet sites down, and I know they pop up like weeds, but once they do pop up, shut them down and then turn those Internet addresses over to the appropriate law enforcement agencies to try to track them down? I would think that even in an open society, when there is a clear threat, they’ve declared war against us, our way of life, they’ve threatened to attack this very city our capital is in, that we could do something about the Internet and social media side of the equation.
“I’m not sure that our authority extends to picking and choosing among websites, but I do think there are specific things that we can do,” Wheeler replied, leading to a discussion of how Congress might be able to modify the laws to expand the FCC’s authority.
Ars Technica notes that one idea floated would involve updating the definition of a “lawful intercept” under the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which would basically give Internet Service Providers more latitude to refer suspicious traffic to law enforcement agencies.
Another possibility related by The Hill was Wheeler’s suggestion that the FCC could use its “bully pulpit” to press the CEOs of Internet companies to do something about jihadi websites. Wheeler specifically mentioned the CEO of Facebook: “I will call Mark Zuckerberg this afternoon to raise the issue you’ve raised and the issue Mr. Barton raised. And I’m sure he is concerned as well and he’ll have some thoughts.”
As The Hill observes, social media companies often have policies that allow them to suspend user accounts for abusive behavior, such as incitement to violence. It should also be noted that many of these companies have been willing to work with content-suppression requests from far more authoritarian governments than the United States.
(Interestingly, the discussion eventually turned to a strange story reported at Breitbart News in September: A mysterious rash of vandalism directed at Internet providers in California. Wheeler complained that the FCC currently lacks the capability to “connect the dots” on such attacks and help law enforcement determine a pattern.)
The question of blocking terrorist websites takes us into some troubling government-censorship territory. Rep. Barton is unquestionably correct about the problem of jihadi websites, and the success groups like ISIS have enjoyed with recruiting through social media, but the solution is not as simple as telling the FCC to shut these services down. The potential for abuse from such censorious powers is obvious.
It is also a bit shady to have government regulators skimming past the limits of their legal authority to ask private-sector executives to impose censorship the administration lacks the power to implement directly. There are probably websites useful to jihadi networking that take pains not to violate the clear rules of conduct for services like Facebook. Is the answer really to have the FCC chairman get Mark Zuckerberg on the horn and ask him to crack down on those sites anyway? Does anyone have trouble seeing how that sort of informal content-controlling relationship could be abused?
Ironically, even as the FCC chairman was expressing doubts that he had the authority to quash ISIS websites, Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) was telling the Washington Examiner she was worried about Net Neutrality regulations being used as a cudgel against legitimate political sites like the Drudge Report and Fox News.
“When it comes to the content side, I have the sense that this is the very beginning of the net neutrality debate,” said Blackburn. “I’ve been very concerned about net neutrality turning out to be the Fairness Doctrine of the Internet, and having that applied to websites.”
The Fairness Doctrine was an equal-time rule for broadcast media that intimidated broadcasters out of carrying opinionated content, because they could be required to present “balanced” views.
It would be a strange state of affairs indeed if legitimate political discourse between American citizens could be stifled in the name of Net Neutrality but little could be done to shut down terrorist recruiting websites.