Trump Signs Executive Order Targeting Social Media
On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order targeting the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. That law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, is essential to large social platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the kind of companies the president has long accused, without evidence, of deliberately suppressing conservative views. Much of the president’s order consists of complaints about social media companies and their efforts to flag or remove content deemed inappropriate. Here is an explanation of the legal issues surrounding the components of the order that would — or might — do something.
#BREAKING: President Trump signs executive order strip liability protection from companies that censure content: "Companies that engage in censoring or any political conduct will not be able to keep their liability shield." https://t.co/D5ooUw1fNz pic.twitter.com/FHs7kUvJH1
— The Hill (@thehill) May 28, 2020
The draft order would open the door for the Commerce Department and the Federal Communications Commission to reinterpret the law and allow the Federal Trade Commission to create a tool for users to report bias online.
Trump said Thursday:
“That’s a big deal. They have a shield. They can do what they want,”
“They’re not going to have that shield.”
According to the order, the National Telecommunication and Information Administration has 60 days to file a petition for rulemaking with the FCC. Upon receiving the petition, the Trump administration is asking that the FCC reinterpret parts of Section 230 and decide what it means for a platform not to be acting in “good faith” under the provision.
Trump announced his plans to sign this executive order after Twitter fact-checked two of his tweets for the first time earlier this week. The tweets made false and misleading claims about mail-in voting and voter fraud, and Twitter labelled them with a link leading users to additional reporting about the issue.
What does the executive order say?
Under a 1996 law, website operators, unlike traditional publishers, cannot generally be held responsible for content posted by users.
The sites are also protected from lawsuits if they block posts deemed obscene, violent “or otherwise objectionable, whether or not such material is constitutionally protected”.
The executive order argues that this immunity should no longer apply if a social network edits posts, such as by adding a warning or a label.
It also says “deceptive” blocking, including removing a post for reasons other than those described in a website’s terms of service, should not be protected.
Republican Senator Marco Rubio is among those arguing that the platforms take on the role of a “publisher” when they add fact-check labels to posts.
Mr Rubio said:
“The law still protects social media companies like Twitter because they are considered forums not publishers,”
“But if they have now decided to exercise an editorial role like a publisher, then they should no longer be shielded from liability.”
The executive order also calls for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to spell out what type of content blocking will be considered deceptive or inconsistent with a service provider’s terms and conditions.
Donald Trump promised “big action” in response to Twitter’s decision to append a fact-check message to two of his posts. While his announcement of an executive order was heavy on rhetoric – accusing social media companies of being monopolies that threaten free speech – it will be a long process before the talk turns into real action, big or otherwise.
Independent government agencies will have to review federal law, promulgate new regulations, vote on them and then – in all likelihood – defend them in court. By the time it’s all over, the November presidential election could have come and gone. That explains why Trump is also pushing for new congressional legislation – a more straightforward way of changing US policy toward social media companies.
The real purpose of the president’s order, however, may be symbolic. At the very least, the move will cause Twitter to think twice about attempting to moderate or fact-check his posts on their service. The president relies on Twitter to get his message out without filtering from the mainstream media. If Twitter itself start blunting one of his favourite communication tools, he is sending a message that he will push back – and make things, at a minimum, uncomfortable for the company.
Twitter’s chief executive, Jack Dorsey, responded to criticism of the platform’s fact-checking policies in a series of posts, saying: “We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”
Twitter has tightened its policies in recent years, as it faced criticism that its hands-off approach allowed fake accounts and misinformation to thrive.