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Sunday, December 2, 2012

Disruptions: Silencing the Voices of Militants on Twitter

Twitter, perhaps more than any other social media outlet, has become one of the most powerful tools to promote democracy in the Middle East.

The service, which helped fuel the Arab Spring protests and a new order in the region, is now under attack for aiding and abetting terrorist organizations.

Along with six other Republican lawmakers, Representative Ted Poe, a judge turned Texas Congressman, sent a letter to the F.B.I., demanding that Twitter ban two militant groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, that are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations. “Failure to block access arms them with the ability to freely spread their violent propaganda and mobilize in their war on Israel,” he said in a statement to news outlets, adding: “The F.B.I. and Twitter must recognize sooner rather than later that social media is a tool for the terrorists.”

The demand is based on laws saying that any person or group offering material support - contributing ca sh, weapons and other tangible aid, including “service” and “expert advice or assistance” - to terrorist organizations is essentially working with them.

But some might argue that running AK-47s and rocket launchers to terrorists, and using Twitter, which allows groups to post 140-character missives online, are two very different things.

In a phone interview, Mr. Poe was adamant that Twitter had a responsibility to take down the accounts. By having a voice on the site, he said, they “are amassing more followers and threatening the security of the United States.”

“We freeze terrorist organizations' bank accounts, and we ought to freeze their Twitter accounts, too,” he said.

But civil liberties lawyers are wary of such actions. “The problem here is the process by which the government decides to classify a terrorist organization,” said Michael C. Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell.

The material-support provision has been used to convict about 75 people in the United States, but it remains a contentious issue right up to the Supreme Court.

“The more immediate set of concerns is that not everything these groups do is terrorism, and there are people whose speech could be restricted by some of these laws,” Professor Dorf said, adding that people associated with Hamas who offer aid and education to Palestinians would be silenced, too. “So it's hardly a slam dunk to say that the statute covers Twitter or Facebook.”

Although the letter to the F.B.I. was sent in September, the request gained more attention in recent weeks as fighting escalated in Gaza. After Israel killed Hamas's top military commander, Hamas unleashed an increased barrage of missiles. Both Hamas and a press officer for the Israel Defense Forces posted to Twitter to describe the strike as it unfolded.

Israel has also used other social networks: it has shared videos on YouTube, updated its Facebook sta tus to say which members of Hamas it had killed, and in the most bizarre move, created mood boards on Pinterest to show off its troops and weapons. Banning Hamas or Hezbollah on Twitter could set a broad precedent.

For civil libertarians, any move to remove Hamas and Hezbollah from Twitter raises concerns.

“I think it's as contrary to the First Amendment as openness is the enemy to extremism and fundamentalism,” said Jonathan Zittrain, a professor at Harvard Law School and a founder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. “The F.B.I. is going to learn more about Hamas and any organizations, by having them operate in an open environment, than if its voice is driven to proxies and underground backchannels, which would inevitably happen immediately.”

Hamas and other groups don't fall under the Constitution of the United States. for many of the countries in the Middle East, Twitter is the closest thing to a democracy that gives people a voice, e ven if it's one that we don't always agree with.

E-mail: bilton@nytimes.com