Thursday, September 24, 2015

HR 623 Reported in Senate – Social Media Working Group

Earlier this week the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee published their report on HR 623, Social Media Working Group Act of 2015. The Committee amended and adopted the bill during a hearing on May 6th. A copy of the revised language for the bill has also been published.


Most of the changes to the bill were minor, mostly increasing the emphasis in the language for the use of social media during natural disasters where the emphasis in the previous versions had been on that use during the response to terrorist attacks.

There is another minor, yet interesting wording change in the new version. In describing the purpose of the bill {new §318(b)}, the original language started with the following premise: “In order to enhance information sharing  [emphasis added] between the Department and appropriate stakeholders….” The new version reads: “In order to enhance the dissemination of information [emphasis added] through social media technologies between the Department and appropriate stakeholders….”

The one significant change was a provision that calls for the termination of the Social Media Working Group after 5 years unless the Chairman certifies that “that the continued existence of the Group is necessary to fulfill the purpose” {new §318(g)(1)} outlined in the bill.

Moving Forward

The bill has been placed on the Senate calendar, but that is no guarantee that it will be considered. The bill was adopted in Committee by a voice vote indicating substantial bipartisan support for the bill. This would mean that it would probably be considered under the unanimous consent process in the Senate at a time decided by the Majority Leader.


I am still more than a little puzzled by the lack of information about how Congress would intend for the processes and techniques developed by this Working Group would be disseminated to the agencies in the field. I would have expected to see a requirement to publish a public report on suggested best practices. I’m fairly sure that DHS will be able to figure out how to get the word out, but this is still a fairly odd oversight.

The change in wording of the purpose of the working group, may actually be the most significant change in the document. Where the original wording used information sharing that would seem to indicate a two way flow of information between the government and the public. The new use of ‘dissemination’ indicates a one way data flow.

I suspect that this was done to ease privacy concerns about the government monitoring of social networks. This would seem to me to be a knee jerk reaction that could actually limit the ability of the government to acquire timely information that might aid emergency response. I am certainly not advocating that the government be allowed to monitor emails, telephone calls or even texts, but the use of social media is by definition public and poses no presumption of privacy.

In a wide scale emergency live information about what is actually happening can provide valuable intelligence that could guide the deployment of fire, rescue and medical response assets. Ignoring that information because of an overblown fear of the appearance of violating privacy is a sure way of ensuring that innocent people are denied necessary life-saving emergency services.

In my opinion one of the most valuable things that this Working Group should be doing is developing the technology to capture and display timely information from social networking sources about an incident that will allow incident commanders to provide effective deployment of emergency response capability to protect the public.

Well, it is too late now for this bill. If, as I suspect it will, the bill is considered under the unanimous consent provisions there will not be another chance to change the language. Even when it goes to Conference there will only be a selection of one version of the language or the other, not a chance to actually add new or additional requirements. At best we can hope for a reversion to the House language for the purpose of the bill.

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