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Lawmakers, Twitter locked in dispute over Taliban tweets

Members of Congress want Twitter to stop hosting pro-Taliban tweets that bash U.S. troops, but the company is resisting.

November 23, 2011|By Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — Some members of Congress are urging the popular website Twitter to stop hosting pro-Taliban tweets that celebrate attacks against American and allied forces in Afghanistan.

Twitter executives have told lawmakers that the micro-posts do not violate the website's terms of service because the Taliban is not listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. That designation would make it illegal to provide "material support or resources" to the militant group.

Twitter feeds, apparently from the Taliban, first appeared last year in Arabic and Pashto, one of the official languages of Afghanistan. An English-language feed started in April. Many of the posts refer to U.S. troops in inflammatory terms.

"Mujahideen fighter kill 4 American cowards, hurts several more in encounter: GHAZNI," read one. "US terrorists martyr 12-year-old boy, detains many others: PAKTIKA," read another. And, "American criminals martyr 5 innocent civilians in raid: KANDAHAR."

Twitter officials did not respond to requests for comment. According to rules on the website, Twitter does not allow users to publish "direct, specific threats of violence" or use the website "for any unlawful purposes or in furtherance of illegal activities."

The move against the pro-Taliban Twitter feeds is part of a larger effort by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), chairman of the Senate homeland security committee, to persuade Internet companies to remove videos and blog posts that he says promote terrorism or offer instructions on how to commit violence.

Pressure also is coming from the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Kabul, the Afghan capital. This year, the ISAF began battling the pro-Taliban messages with tweets that countered insurgent claims. As a result, the two sides sometimes exchange a dozen tweets a day.

"I applaud ISAF for stepping into the breach and not ceding the vacuum to the Taliban," said Frank Cilluffo, who was a domestic security advisor to President George W. Bush.

U.S. intelligence agencies are also known to track suspect bloggers and tweeters on the Internet to help identify Taliban fighters or terrorist operatives.

Some legal experts contend that the pro-Taliban messages are protected under U.S. law.

"The Taliban feeds, although they use incendiary language, are essentially a news feed of attacks" that doesn't violate free speech, said Jeffrey Rosen, a law professor at George Washington University. Rosen said Twitter could "only ban feeds that post specific and immediate threats of violence."

Lieberman has pressured other U.S. websites to keep out content that he says could inspire terrorist acts.

On Tuesday, Lieberman complained in a letter to Google Chief Executive Larry Page that the company is failing to keep extremist videos and blogs off its servers. Google has restrictions on posting pro-militant videos on its YouTube site, but Lieberman said those restrictions do not apply to its Blogger blogging site.

Lieberman said Jose Pimentel, who was arrested in New York on Saturday for allegedly planning attacks with pipe bombs, published a website with links to bomb-making instructions and "hate-filled writings" using Blogger.

"Google's inconsistent standards are adversely affecting our ability to counter violent Islamist extremism online," Lieberman wrote.

A Google representative said the company does not allow content on Blogger that encourages other people to take violent action. Pimentel's Blogger website was disabled after his arrest.

brian.bennett@latimes.com

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