US President Donald Trump Signs Order Targeting Social Media Companies

U.S. President Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump Signs Order Targeting Social Media Companies

U.S. President Donald Trump escalated his war on social media companies, signing an executive order Thursday challenging the liability protections that have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet.

Still, the move appears to be more about politics than substance, as the president aims to rally supporters after he lashed out at Twitter for applying fact checks to two of his tweets.

“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States,” he claimed. “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”

Attorney General William Barr, who also attended the signing, said the Justice Department would seek to sue social media companies, saying the statute “has been stretched way beyond its original intention.”

The order would push the Federal Communications Commission to set new rules on some websites’ protections under Section 230. It would also encourage the Federal Trade Commission to take action against companies that engage in “deceptive” acts of communication, and it would form a working group of state attorneys general to review relevant state laws.

Trump and his allies, who rely heavily on Twitter to verbally flog their foes, have long accused the tech giants in Silicon Valley of targeting conservatives on social media by fact-checking them or removing their posts.

“We’re fed up with it,” Trump said, claiming the order would uphold freedom of speech.

The president’s order “reeks of political self-interest — the idea that we are proposing to regulate a platform because they started fact-checking? There’s no one’s free speech rights being infringed on,” said Phil Napoli, a professor of public policy at Duke University who researches media institutions, media regulation and policy.

Protections in new NAFTA

Similar protections are now embedded in the new trade deal with Canada and Mexico — and they were added at the U.S.’s insistence. Chapter 19 of the new NAFTA limits the legal liability of social media companies for what they post, and its inclusion in the deal came at the request of the U.S. administration led by Trump.

Article 19.17 of the NAFTA says the digital services shall not be held liable like publishers would for the content they carry — though the provision includes exemptions for things like protecting against crimes.

A similar executive order was previously considered by the administration but shelved over concerns it couldn’t pass legal muster and that it violated conservative principles on deregulation and free speech.

Late Thursday, Twitter’s Global Public Policy team called the executive order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law.”

Facebook issued the following statement Thursday evening:

“Facebook is a platform for diverse views. We believe in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote. Those rules apply to everybody. Repealing or limiting section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less. By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

Google also released a statement which said the company had “clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint.”

“Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences,” the statement said. “Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”

On Wednesday night, Trump lashed out — on Twitter — accusing the social media giant of “interfering” in the 2020 presidential election and trying to “CENSOR” him.

“If that happens, we no longer have our freedom. I will never let it happen!” Trump tweeted Wednesday night.

The president had earlier tweeted that “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices. We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

While Section 230 has critics on both sides of the aisle, including apparent Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who has said he believes Section 230 should be “revoked,” the executive order was swiftly panned by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

“The proliferation of disinformation is extremely dangerous, particularly as our nation faces the deadliest pandemic in history,” Pelosi said in a statement.

“Clearly and sadly, the President’s Executive Order is a desperate distraction from his failure to provide a national testing strategy to defeat COVID-19.”

Social activists condemned the order as unconstitutional.

How the order would work

Under the order, the Commerce Department would ask the Federal Communications Commission for new regulations clarifying when a company’s conduct might violate the good faith provisions of Section 230 — potentially making it easier for tech companies to be sued.

“This debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Thursday.

The order instructs the Justice Department to consult with state attorneys general on allegations of anti-conservative bias. It bans federal agencies from advertising on platforms that have allegedly violated Section 230’s good-faith principles.

Finally, the order would direct the Federal Trade Commission to report on complaints about political bias collected by the White House and to consider bringing lawsuits against companies accused of violating the administration’s interpretation of Section 230.

The provisions regarding the FTC could raise additional legal questions, as the FTC is an independent agency that does not take orders from the President.”The FTC is committed to robust enforcement of consumer protection and competition laws, including with respect to social media platforms, and consistent with our jurisdictional authority and constitutional limitations,” FTC spokesman Peter Kaplan said Thursday.

‘Get the facts’ 

The companies are gearing up to combat misinformation around the November elections. Twitter and Facebook have begun rolling out dozens of new rules to avoid a repeat of the false postings about the candidates and the voting process that marred the 2016 election.

The coronavirus pandemic has escalated the platforms’ response, leading them to take actions against politicians — a move they’ve long resisted — who make misleading claims about the virus.

Last month, Twitter introduced a “Get the Facts” label to direct social media users to news articles from trusted outlets next to tweets containing misleading or disputed information about the virus.

Even as he and his supporters complain of bias on the platform, Trump has used Twitter to build a potent and vocal online following. The president’s account currently has more than 80 million followers.

Trump’s success on social media suggests that his proposal may be more about politics than any interest in regulation, according to Rutgers University media professor John Pavlik, who studies the impact of technology on society and government.

Pavlik said that by trying to intimidate the platforms now, he’s seeking to control how the 2020 campaign plays out online and “about appealing to his base.”

Twitter refused to delete Trump’s tweets about Scarborough. But Dorsey on Wednesday defended his company’s fact-checking labels, saying Twitter will “continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally.”

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