Digital Threats Act – Ending Online Death Threats

One of the problems in our society is that the anonymity of digital communications allows some people to feel empowered to say things that they would never say to someone’s face. An example of this are threats of harm or even death. If threats of this nature were made face to face, the person making the threat would be subject to arrest – it is illegal to threaten to harm or kill someone. However since these threats are being made remotely, often anonymously, action is almost never taken against the person making the threat. Often they are in a different jurisdiction and local law enforcement lacks the resources or technical capabilities to adequately pursue the case.

The Digital Threats Act would address online threats.

Communications and social media providers would be required to add a Threats Flag to their software that would allow a person receiving a threat to immediately flag it. This information would be submitted to the FBI for inclusion in a Digital Threats Database. If a person is making repeated threats, either against one person or different people, the threats database would generate a report on the person’s threats. In most cases it would be forwarded to their local law enforcement agency and up to local law enforcement to act on the Threats Report. This could include visiting the person making threats to issue a warning up to arresting them for their behavior. In a limited number of cases the threats will rise to the level to justify federal attention and the FBI will contact the threat maker directly.

The goal of the Digital Threats Act isn’t to put a bunch of people in jail for an angry Twitter response. Ideally, just the realization that someone might be watching their actions will cause many people to pause before they threaten to kill the person with whom the disagree. And for those few people that are truly abusive, it will make it easier to identify and prosecute them. Hopefully, this will take just a bit of the edge and violence out of the Internet and social media. It will be a small change that hopefully makes the online world and our society just a bit more civil.

Overview of Process and Technology

• All communications companies and social media platforms would be required to add a Threats Flag to their software (Threats Flag). This would include all email providers (Google, etc.) and all social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, Instagram, Youtube, etc.)– any technology that allows sending a private or public message or comment.

• The Threats Flag will allow the person receiving the threat to designate one of two levels of threat:
o A direct threat – “I am going to kill you/cause you harm”
o An indirect threat – “You are going to be killed/suffer harm”
• The person that made the threat is NOT notified at the time the communications is flagged, nor is there a public disclosure that the communications was flagged

• Upon flagging, the communications/social media provider records the key information about the threat:
o The text or audio/video file of the communications
o The name and contact information of the person receiving the threat (email address, social media handle, real name, etc.)
o The name, contact information and available digital information of the person making the threat (could include social media handle, real name, IP address, MAC address)

• The communications/social media provider transmits the threat information to a relational database established by the FBI (Digital Threats Database)

• The Relational Threats Database periodically runs data queries to:
o Identify all of the communications channels through which a person makes a threat
o Count the number and level of threats being made
o Count the number of people against whom threats are made
• If the threat count is above a predefined threshold, the database queries public records to identify the address of the person making the threats
• A report is generated on the person making the threats

• Reports are reviewed by an FBI agent to confirm that the flagged communications are in fact threats
• If the communications are not judged to be threats, in the database the person that reported the threat is noted for having made a questionable referral
• Depending on the number, character and intensity of the threats, the report is either forwarded to the law enforcement jurisdiction of the person making the threats or assigned to an FBI field office for follow up

• The FBI will periodically review thresholds for reporting and determinations by FBI agents and identify possible improvements to matching across different communications/social media platforms

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