Obama asks social networks to join fight against ISIS

The president wants the major tech companies to assist in preventing incidents like last week's mass shooting in California.

Katie Collins Senior European Correspondent
Katie a UK-based news reporter and features writer. Officially, she is CNET's European correspondent, covering tech policy and Big Tech in the EU and UK. Unofficially, she serves as CNET's Taylor Swift correspondent. You can also find her writing about tech for good, ethics and human rights, the climate crisis, robots, travel and digital culture. She was once described a "living synth" by London's Evening Standard for having a microchip injected into her hand.
Katie Collins
3 min read

President Obama wants social networks to help prevent ISIS attacks.

Screenshot by CNET

President Barack Obama is asking social-media giants to help defeat the Islamic militant group ISIS.

"I will urge high-tech and law enforcement leaders to make it harder for terrorists to use technology to escape from justice," the US president said in a televised speech Sunday night, outlining his strategy to defeat ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria also known as ISIL or IS. Obama used the speech to explain the steps he would be taking to prevent future attacks such as the one with links to ISIS that killed 14 people last week in San Bernardino, California.

There is concern that major tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter and Google are already helping Western governments more than they let on, though. Unnamed former employees quoted by Reuters say the tech giants are concerned that if the true level of their cooperation were known, they would face increased demands from other countries and would be seen as bowing to government pressure.

Facebook, Twitter and Google all have clear policies to deal with hate speech and terrorist activity on their various networks, but they toe a tricky line when it comes to bending to the will of governments, ensuring user privacy and upholding freedom of speech.

The Obama administration plans to meet with tech companies in the coming days to develop a "clearer understanding of when we believe social media is being used actively and operationally to promote terrorism," a White House official told Reuters on Sunday. Specifically, Obama wants to tackle the active planning of terror plots that takes place on social sites. Facebook, Twitter and Google also met Thursday with the French prime minister and European Commission officials, who made similar demands, according to Reuters.

Social networks say they do not to prioritize government complaints over citizen complaints unless they come complete with a court order. However, Reuters' sources allege that there are already several workarounds that allow government officials to contact the social networks through informal but direct channels that can get content removed within hours, or even minutes, without a paper trail.

US and UK authorities have also called for tech companies to weaken encryption so that it can't be "utilized in a way that allows for a space, a dark space, for terrorist groups to be plotting operations and attacks," the White House official told Reuters. Industry leaders and privacy advocates have responded with vehement opposition to the idea of weakened encryption.

For the social networks, encryption is seen as a key part of protecting users and shouldn't necessarily be interpreted as tech companies refusing to tackle extremism and hate speech that take place on their sites. According to Reuters, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have taken down more extremist propaganda in the past year than in all previous years.

On Friday, Facebook removed the profile belonging to Tashfeen Malik, one of two suspects in the California attack, for violating community standards. Facebook prohibits any praise or promotion of "acts of terror," and a spokesman told Reuters that her profile, under an alias, contained pro-ISIS content. Malik was killed by police in a shootout after the attack.

Facebook, Twitter and Google did not respond to requests for comment.