US legislation requiring tech industry to report terrorist activity dropped

The provision would have required the tech industry to report vaguely-defined terrorist activity

The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee has dropped a provision that would have required Internet companies to report on vaguely-defined terrorist activity on their platforms, a move that was strongly opposed by the industry and civil rights groups.

The controversial section 603 was included in the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 but Senator Ron Wyden, a Democrat from Oregon, had put a hold on the bill, stating that he wanted to work with colleagues to revise or remove the provision so that the rest of the bill could move forward.

On Monday, Wyden said that the "vague & dangerous" provision had been removed from the bill and he would now be lifting the hold on it.

“Social media companies aren’t qualified to judge which posts amount to 'terrorist activity,' and they shouldn’t be forced against their will to create a Facebook Bureau of Investigations to police their users’ speech,” Wyden said in a statement.

The provision would have required Internet services companies, who obtain "actual knowledge of any terrorist activity," to provide to the appropriate authorities the "facts or circumstances" of the alleged activities.

Powerful tech industry bodies like the Internet Association, Reform Government Surveillance and Internet Infrastructure Coalition found the description "any terrorist activity" as vague and overbroad. In a letter to Senate leaders in August, the associations warned that the provision could result in "overbroad reporting to the government, swamping law enforcement with useless information, and potentially raising First Amendment and privacy concerns for the user who posted the item."

Over 30 civil rights groups and trade bodies also wrote to key senators warning about the chilling effect the provision would have had on constitutionally protected speech, as Internet communications services providers would tend to over-report on the activity and communications of their users to avoid violating the law.

The House of Representatives passed a version of the Intelligence Authorization Act in June.

The dispute over the provision may, however, be far from over.  A spokesman for Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and prominent member of the intelligence committee, told some news outlets that she had agreed to drop the provision if only to let the intelligence bill move forward, but still considers it important to block the use of social media by terrorists.

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