“We see this over and over again, we see issues of extremism and how they turn into violence,” a senior White House official told reporters on a call Wednesday evening.
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Vice President Harris, who has worked to address online exploitation throughout her career, is scheduled to unveil the task force at a Thursday White House event, which will convene top administration officials, as well as survivors of online harassment and civil society experts. Once it launches, the task force will have 180 days to create a set of policy recommendations for government, as well as recommendations for tech companies, schools and other entities. It will also make recommendations for additional research.
Harris’s efforts to curb online abuse have a controversial history. She was a co-sponsor of FOSTA-SESTA, a law that opened up tech companies to lawsuits if they knowingly hosted sex trafficking on their websites. The law’s opponents said that the measure had a chilling effect on online speech and harmed sex workers’ ability to communicate safely.
Harris’s involvement follows her work as California attorney general, when she prosecuted a case against the operator of a cyber exploitation website, and efforts as a senator to make the nonconsensual sharing of illicit images illegal. Yet there is still no federal law prohibiting such activity. The task force is co-chaired by the White House’s Gender Policy Council and the National Security Council, and it includes the attorney general, the secretary of health and human services and other heads of federal agencies and policy councils.
The Biden administration came into office with high expectations to develop protocols to deal with hate and violence that spreads on online, most notably after the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. But despite public criticism of social media companies, the White House thus far has taken little action in the area.
The administration’s most high-profile social media initiative to date — the Department of Homeland Security’s Disinformation Governance Board — was disbanded after a barrage of attacks. The board’s stated purpose was to “coordinate countering misinformation related to homeland security,” but it became a lightning rod after conservatives raised concerns about online censorship they said might arise from the initiative.
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The White House official said the online abuse task force would be focused on “illegal conduct,” including cyberstalking, online abuse linked to child sex abuse material and trafficking.
“We are very mindful of the First Amendment issues,” the official said. “But banning threatening speech is not protected by the First Amendment. So while we are going to carefully navigate those issues, we are also going to remain laser-focused on the non-speech aspects.”
Online harassment is widespread and disproportionately affects young women and lesbian, gay or bisexual adults. Thirty-three percent of women younger than 35 say they have been sexually harassed online, compared to 11 percent of men, according to the Pew Research Center. About 7 in 10 lesbian, gay or bisexual adults have faced online harassment, according to the same data.
The White House official said the task force was not focused on any specific social media platform, and that it will “be looking for opportunities to engage with industry experts and leaders” on improving the safety and design of their products.