Paris Attacks and the Communications Policy Ramifications

You’re reading the Benton Foundation’s Weekly Round-up, a recap of the biggest (or most overlooked) telecommunications stories of the week. The round-up is delivered via e-mail each Friday; to get your own copy, subscribe at

Paris Attacks and the Communications Policy Repercussions
Robbie's Round-Up (November 16-25, 2015)

On November 13, a series of coordinated attacks in Paris, France, resulted in the death of 130 people. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the attack, the worst terrorist attack in Europe in 11 years. As with nearly every "breaking news" event, there's been a great deal of criticism of how the media covered the news as it unfolded. In addition, the attacks raised numerous issues pertaining to communications policy, including: 1) the use of social media for emergency communications, 2) Internet censorship, and 3) resparking the debate around encryption and government surveillance for national security purposes.

I. Social Media and Emergency Communication
Social-media companies like Facebook and Twitter provided new tools to allow the world to track and discuss the violent attacks with unprecedented speed and depth. In addition, Facebook activated its “Safety Check” feature, allowing the site’s users in the area of the attacks to mark themselves as safe on their profiles. According to the company, some 4.1 million users checked in using the tool in the first 24 hours after the attack. That's roughly one-third of the 12.1 million people who live in the Paris metropolitan area. Those posts reached 360 million users worldwide.

The speed and efficacy of Facebook’s Safety Check in the aftermath of the Paris attacks marks a turning point in the use of social media for emergency communications. Notably, it was the first time the tool was enabled for violent attacks, rather than natural disasters. The decision as to when and where to deploy the tool sparked criticism online, raising questions as to the role and responsibilities of the social network.

Many felt that the selective activation of the tool -- and it’s “less utilitarian cousin, the solidarity photo filter” -- indicate a whole host of problems, including how the West views certain countries in the Middle East and the potential public relations motivation for deploying the tool. Caitlin Dewey for the Washington Post wrote, “the tool...serves an important PR function, and it does Facebook no good to deploy it in situations that are messy, drawn-out, under-covered or overtly political -- most conflict situations, in other words, in most parts of the world.”

As social media continues to serve as an important tool for emergency communication in the aftermath of a tragedy, it is important to be aware that certain public interest expectations and responsibilities may be compromised when a social network such as Facebook, with its Western bias and PR motivations, takes on an important communication role of the state.

II. Internet Censorship
During a House Communications Subcommittee hearing, Rep Joe Barton (R-TX) suggested he wants to shut down parts of the Internet that are being used by ISIS, saying, “They are really trying to use the Internet and all the social media to intimidate and beat us psychologically...Isn't there something we can do to shut those Internet sites down?" In addition, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, suggested the US will have to “take back the Internet” from ISIS, which he says has been effectively using the web as a recruitment tool. "We've got to take back the Internet because they are taking people. They're literally brainwashing people. They're brainwashing our youth... We can't let that happen. We have innocent youth, and they are misguided.”

In response to Rep Barton, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said, "I'm not sure [the Commission’s] authority extends to [shutting down websites], but I do think there are specific things we can do." He reminded Rep Barton that Congress could revisit the question of ‘What is lawful intercept?’, as it did in the 1994 Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA). “You read in the press that [the attackers] were using PlayStation 4 games to communicate on,” Chairman Wheeler said, “which is outside the scope of anything considered in CALEA, so there's probably opportunities to update the ‘lawful intercept’ concept.” (Reports about the use of the gaming console to coordinate the attacks have since been debunked.) Chairman Wheeler later explained "I've seen a lot of the headlines that have me calling for a new law. I think the reality of the situation was ... I said that it was up to the Congress."

III. Encryption Faces New Scrutiny
The Paris attacks stirred global debate over online encryption, reanimating the dialogue on how to balance national security, government surveillance and privacy rights. This debate occurred despite American and French officials saying there is still no definitive evidence to back up their presumption that the terrorists in Paris used new, difficult-to-crack, encryption technologies to organize the plot. But in interviews, Obama Administration officials say ISIS has used a range of encryption technologies over the past year and a half, many of which defy cracking by the National Security Agency. Central Intelligence Agency Director John Brennan denounced what he called “hand-wringing” over intrusive government spying and said leaks about intelligence programs had made it harder to identify the “murderous sociopaths” of the Islamic State. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Damian Paletta and Siobhan Hughes said, “A renewed push to give law enforcement and intelligence investigators more power to decrypt commercially sold technology could set Washington on a collision course with Silicon Valley.” The New York Times argued mass surveillance isn’t the answer, saying, “It’s a wretched yet predictable ritual after each new terrorist attack: Certain politicians and government officials waste no time exploiting the tragedy for their own ends. The John Brennan … , the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, took that to a new and disgraceful low.”

Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said, “At some point, this Administration has to have a commitment to defeat terrorism, and it’s going to start with better intelligence, as we have seen from the Paris attacks...And that’s going to require us to look inside, when needed, terrorists’ conversations and communications." No solution to the encryption problem is in the works at this point. The Intelligence committee heads aren’t yet drafting legislation and aren’t even sure what aspects of encrypted communications they will address when they do begin to lay out a plan. “I wouldn’t dare make you even remotely believe we’re on a legislative route,” Chairman Burr said. “We’re on an exploratory route, trying to figure out what options we have.”

On Nov 17, Sen Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced legislation to delay November’s deadline to end the NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records. The effort is unlikely to be successful, given the support for NSA reform on both sides of the aisle as well as in the White House.

With the increased scrutiny of encryption and calls for delays in NSA reform, some are criticizing the media's coverage of the aftermath, blaming the media for spreading misleading information and serving as stenographers of agency officials in the ongoing debates. The Washington Post's Brian Fung said if government surveillance increases after the Paris attacks, the media will be partly to blame. In The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald wrote, “...particularly after a terror attack, large parts of the US media treat US intelligence and military officials with the reverence usually reserved for cult leaders, whereby their every utterance is treated as Gospel, no dissent or contradiction is aired, zero evidence is required to mindlessly swallow their decrees, anonymity is often provided to shield them from accountability, and every official assertion is equated with Truth, no matter how dubious, speculative, evidence-free, or self-serving…not since 2003 have I witnessed anything as supine and uncritical as the CIA-worshipping stenography that has been puked forward this week. Even before the Paris attacks were concluded, a huge portion of the press corps knelt in front of the nearest official with medals on their chest or who flashes covert status, and they’ve stayed in that pitiful position ever since.”

Quick Bits

Holiday Reads (resist tl;dr)

Events Calendar for the Week of Nov 30-Dec 4, 2015

ICYMI From Benton
Blair Levin’s Speech before the Internet Society, “Achieving Bandwidth Abundance: The Three Policy Levers for Intensifying Broadband Competition”

All of us at the Benton Foundation wish you a safe and happy Thanksgiving Holiday!

By Robbie McBeath.