Testifying in Congress




Testimony to the House Subcommittee on Communication and Technology and the Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. Delivered at the 16 October 2019 Hearing entitled, “Fostering a Healthier Internet to Protect Consumers.”

Chairman Doyle, Chair Schakowsky, Ranking Members Latta and McMorrris Rodgers and members of the Subcommittees: It’s an honor to be here today before you to discuss one of the premier security threats of our time, one that your committees are well-positioned to solve. 

I am the executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online. 

Our alliance is made up of academics, security experts, NGOs and citizen investigators that have come together to push serious organized crime and terror activity off the Internet. 

Under the original intent of CDA Section 230, there was to be a shared responsibility between tech platforms, law enforcement, and organizations like ACCO. 

However, tech firms are failing to uphold their end of the bargain and, because of overly broad interpretations by the courts, tech firms now use CDA 230 as a shield instead of a sword. 

Congress must modify CDA 230 and create legal and financial incentives to hold tech firms accountable when they are knowingly or negligently facilitating illegal activity. 

I want to thank you for your interest in our research and for asking me to join the panel of witnesses testifying today. Like you, I had hoped to hear the testimony of U.S. Trade Representative, because keeping CDA 230 language out of America’s trade agreements is critical to our national security. Unfortunately, he chose to turn down Chairman Pallone’s invitation and keep the American people in the dark regarding language in trade agreements that has global implications. 

I have a long history tracking organized crime and terrorism. For years I worked as a war reporter and wrote a book about the Taliban and the drug trade. As a result of this work, I was recruited by U.S. military leaders to support the intelligence community, where I mapped transnational crime networks for Special Operations Command, the DEA and CENTCOM. In 2014, I received funding from State Department to map wildlife supply chains. That’s when my team discovered that the largest retail markets for endangered species are on social media platforms like Facebook and WeChat.

Tech firms play an active role facilitating and spreading harm. Their algorithms, originally designed to connect friends, also help criminals and terror groups connect to a global audience. Gretchen Peters

Founding the Alliance to Counter Crime Online has taught me the incredible range and scale of illicit activity happening online. It is far worse than even I ever imagined. 

Distinguished members of the committee: The Internet is the new frontier for organized crime and terror groups. We MUST get this under control. 

Illicit groups have weaponized social media for years now, taking advantage of a market infrastructure that is global, encrypted and highly lucrative. 

The tech industry will try and convince you that illegal activity is confined to the dark web. 

But surface web platforms provide much the same anonymity as the dark web, as well as payments infrastructure – and a far greater reach of people. 

We are in the midst of a public health crisis – the opioid epidemic – which is claiming the lives of more than 60-thousand Americans every year. 

Study after study by ACCO members and others have shown widespread use of Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube by an estimated 35-thousand illegal online pharmacies to market and sell fentanyl, oxycodone and other highly addictive, often deadly controlled substances to U.S. consumers, in direct violation of federal law. 

Facebook, for example, only began tracking drug postings on its platform last year. Within six months, they identified 1.5 million posts selling drugs – and that’s just what they caught. 

To put that in perspective, that’s 100 times more postings than the notorious Dark Website the Silk Road ever carried. 

Facebook-owned Instagram is today an open marketplace for drug dealers to target teens, and the corporation has never released any data on the volume of drug content on the platform. ACCO researchers have also tracked drug sales on Google, Reddit and Twitter. It’s everywhere. 

Why? Because there is no law that holds tech firms responsible, even when a child dies buying drugs on an internet platform. 

And it’s not just drug trafficking. Tech firms are removing far less terror content than they claim. Rather, their algorithms connect terror groups like Al Qaeda and Hezbollah to their supporters faster than beleaguered moderators can remove them, and on a wider global scale than these groups could have reached on their own. 

ISIS and other terror groups use social media to sell looted artifacts from areas in conflict. ACCO members include an incredible team of Syrian archaeologists recording the online trafficking of thousands of artifacts plundered from ancient sites in their homeland, a war crime under the Second Protocol of the 1954 Hague convention. 

CDA 230 Congressional Testimony

We’re now tracking more than 2 million members in 100 active Facebook groups where brokers, including members of terrorist groups, offer loot-to-order services across the Middle East. 

Our researchers have identified three additional extremist groups aside from ISIS that are profiting from the sale of stolen artifacts on Facebook and operating with impunity.

We’re tracking groups on Twitter, Instagram, Google and Facebook where endangered species are sold – items ranging from rhino horn and ivory to live cheetahs and apes. In some cases, the size of these markets is literally threatening key species with extinction. Our research, for example, has shown that 70 percent of the annual illegal cheetah trade takes place on Facebook and Instagram. 

The black market on social media is far more than just drugs, wildlife, and stolen antiquities. For users who want to watch illegal dog fighting, screen live videos of child exploitation, buy guns, human remains or counterfeit goods, it’s all just a few clicks away. 

We support calls for increased user privacy, but current encryption plans laid out by the tech industry will make media platforms even safer for criminals and terrorists. 

The tech industry routinely claims that modifying CDA 230 is a threat to freedom of speech. 

But CDA 230 is not a law about free speech. It’s about liability. 

Try and imagine another industry that has ever enjoyed such an incredible subsidy from Congress: total immunity no matter what harm their product brings to consumers. 

Tech firms could have implemented internal controls to prevent illicit activity from occurring but it was cheaper and easier to scale by looking the other way. They were given this incredible freedom, and they have no one to blame but themselves for squandering it. 

The “move fast break things” culture developed precisely because of CDA 230. 

We want to see reforms to the CDA230 which will remove safe harbor for criminal and terror content. That means: 

  • Stripping immunities for hosting terror and serious crime content 
  • Putting the onus on tech firms to monitor their platforms; 
  • Regulating that firms must report crime and terror activity, along with full data about the users who uploaded it, to law enforcement; 
  • Appropriating resources to law enforcement to contend with this data. 

Distinguished committee members, if it’s illegal in real life, it should be illegal to host it online. 

It is imperative that we reform CDA230 to make the Internet a safer place for all. Thank you.



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