Social media firms fighting terror quietly
FACEBOOK, Google and Twitter are stepping up efforts to combat online propaganda and recruiting by Islamic militants, but the Internet companies are doing it quietly to avoid the perception that they are helping the authorities police the Web.
On Friday, Facebook said that it took down a profile that the company believed belonged to San Bernardino shooter Tashfeen Malik, who with her husband, is accused of killing 14 people in a mass shooting on Wednesday that the FBI is investigating as an "act of terrorism".
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) said on Saturday that the married couple were its followers, while FBI agents raided a home apparently belonging to a friend of the husband.
On Thursday, the French prime minister and European Commission officials met separately with Facebook, Google, Twitter and other companies to demand faster action on what the commission called "online terrorism incitement and hate speech".
The Internet companies said they ban certain types of content in accordance with their own terms of service, and require court orders to remove or block anything beyond that. Anyone can report, or flag, content for review and possible removal.
But according to former employees, Facebook, Google and Twitter all worry that if they are public about their true level of cooperation with Western law enforcement agencies, they will face endless demands for similar action from countries around the world.
They also fret about being perceived by consumers as being tools of the government. Worse, if the companies spell out exactly how their screening works, they run the risk that technologically savvy militants will learn more about how to beat their systems.
"If they knew what magic sauce went into pushing content into the newsfeed, spammers or whomever would take advantage of that," said a security expert who had worked at both Facebook and Twitter, who asked not to be identified.
Facebook, Google and Twitter say they do not treat government complaints differently from citizen complaints, unless the government obtains a court order. But there are workarounds, according to former employees, activists and government officials.
A key one is for officials or their allies to complain that a threat, hate speech or celebration of violence violates the company's terms of service, rather than any law. Such content can be taken down within hours or minutes, and without the paper trail that would go with a court order.