Texas lawmakers berated several Big Tech companies Thursday for being no-shows at a legislative panel aimed at detecting, assessing and preventing mass violence attacks and online threats.
Lawmakers from the Texas House Committee on Mass Violence Prevention and Community Safety, which was created after the August mass shootings in El Paso and Odessa, invited Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter, Google and Facebook to testify about their efforts to prevent the spread of online threats and extremism. Only Facebook sent a representative.
“It’s not a good start,” said Rep. Cesar Blanco, a Democrat who represents the El Paso district where a shooter killed 22 people on Aug. 3. “It’s very disrespectful to those that have been killed. It demonstrates that social media companies don’t believe they should be active participants in keeping people safe. If they’re not going to be at the table to communicate how they can be good partners, then we’re going to move forward and make legislation that requires them to do it.”
Rep. Drew Darby, R-San Angelo, said he was disappointed the companies rejected the committee’s invitation, especially in light of financial incentives the state has provided to bring their companies to Texas.
“This was an important conversation and they needed to participate, and they didn’t,” said Darby, the committee chairman. “It’s disappointing.”
He said that Twitter, Amazon and Microsoft declined the invitation and that Google said the only employee who could speak on the subject was out of the country.
In a written statement, Twitter said: “Twitter had a representative at the Governor’s roundtable last month. We care deeply about these issues and have been actively engaged with law enforcement and local legislators.”
The company also said it had built policies around extremism and hateful conduct since 2017 and has enforced those policies “vigorously.” The company recently touted it has removed 184 violent extremist groups from its platform and more than 2,000 unique accounts who have violated its policy.
But much of the hearing was focused on how law enforcement agencies have difficulty getting social media companies to cooperate when they identify potential online threats, even after they have filed subpoenas or arrest warrants.
Maj. David Cabrera of the Texas Department of Public Safety cited an incident last week with Twitter. He said on the morning of Oct. 3, an analyst found a threatening post indicating a possible shooting at a 10 p.m. screening for the movie Joker, but a location was not identified.
DPS sent Twitter a subpoena, and the company asked for more information. By the time Twitter sent DPS the information the agency requested, Cabrera said, it was 10:43 p.m.
“The threat, had it been carried out, would have occurred already,” he said. “That’s one of the many challenges we’re faced with, especially on responses from social media platforms on threats.”
Blanco said Cabrera’s anecdote was a “perfect example of how there’s a lack of swift movement on behalf of social media platforms to help law enforcement” and lamented that the company was not there to answer questions about the incident.
Cabrera said there is a “lack of understanding” from technology companies about the threats and the urgency with which law enforcement agencies operate. He said if DPS had a direct contact at Twitter who deals with law enforcement, that would have expedited the request.
“I hear law enforcement asking for a phone number. That’s a little embarrassing,” said Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, a Southlake Republican. “We have to go a little further than just a phone number. What we need is a dedicated team.”
Ana Martinez, the head of public policy and community engagement for Facebook’s southwest region, told lawmakers that the world’s largest social media company has a team dedicated to addressing threats and working with law enforcement agencies. Much of the team is made up of former law enforcement agents, she said.
When authorities request information from Facebook, Martinez said, they can track its progress on a company portal. But she was unable to tell lawmakers how quickly those requests are processed.
“I don’t have an exact time frame for you and I apologize,” she said. “But I do know our law enforcement team acts swiftly.”
Some lawmakers grew frustrated with Martinez after she could not answer this question and others about how the company identifies violent content, the number of users who have been suspended for posting it and what information she could provide on extremist groups.
“I don’t have that information,” Martinez said.
“What information do you have that you can provide to the committee?” Blanco shot back.
In other testimony, Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp said every second counts when it comes to assessing online threats, and technology companies have not been proactive in helping law enforcement tackle those threats.
“There’s been a lot of talk about social media and some of the companies possibly providing information. I will tell you, in 15 years, I’ve never seen one,” she said.
Danny Coulson, a former deputy assistant director of the FBI, told the panel that working with social media companies to prevent mass attacks is crucial, but they have to be willing to help.
“They need to be involved,” he said. “The question is, how do we secure their involvement? How do we get them on our side?”