Trump signs executive order targeting social media companies

President Donald Trump signed an executive order on Thursday targeting social media platforms, pushing to make them liable for content posted onto their sites, and ordering the Federal Trade Commission and the attorney general to begin investigating the companies.

Today, I am signing an executive order to protect and uphold the free speech and rights of the American people,” Trump said at the signing.

The executive order comes on the heels of Twitter attaching a fact-check message to Trump’s tweet about how a mail-in ballot system would promote voter fraud, and is seen by some critics as retaliation and an attempt to strong-arm tech companies.

This would make social media companies like Facebook and Twitter legally responsible for what others say and do on their platform, opening them up to civil lawsuits.

Trump Signs Social Media Executive Order
Doug MIlls-Pool / Getty Images

Section 230 states that “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” 

At the signing, Trump said Twitter had become an “editor with a viewpoint,” accusing Facebook and “perhaps others” of the same.

“[Twitter has] a shield. They can do what they want,” Trump said. “They’re not going to have that shield.”

At the signing, Trump reportedly suggested he would shut down Twitter if he could, though he conceded, “I’d have to go through a legal process.”

Twitter responded by calling the executive order a “reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law.”

“#Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values,” the company tweeted. “Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.

Trump’s order seeks to remove the protections of Section 230 in the Provision of the Communication Decency Act for online platforms that remove or restrict content “outside the scope of being lewd, violent, or otherwise objectionable” by reclassifying those platforms as “publishers.”

Trump’s executive order directs all government departments and agencies to apply his interpretation of the rule. Trump also ordered the Federal Trade Commission and Attorney General William Barr to begin probes into “unfair or deceptive practices” at social media companies.

Barr said at the signing that the Justice Department will draft legislation cracking down on social media companies to submit to Congress, and suggested “litigation” as a possible solution to alleged bias.

Trump has also directed the Commerce Department to ask the independent Federal Communications Commission to come up with new rules about Section 230’s “good faith” exemption, which protects social media companies’ moderation efforts. His executive order also bars federal spending for advertising on any platforms that “violate free speech principles.”

President Trump Issues Executive Order Against Social Media Companies
Getty Images

Finally, the executive order states the White House will set up a Tech Bias Reporting Tool to collect complaints about alleged censorship on social media platforms. The White House Office of Digital Strategy will also collect public information about social media companies “creating watchlists of users based on their interaction with content or users” and “monitoring users based on their activity off the platform.”

Twitter’s fact-check message seemed to have served as a catalyst for the executive order, which was released just two days later.

The president initially responded to Twitter’s notice by threatening to “strongly regulate” or shut down social media platforms, claiming that Twitter and other social media platforms were censoring conservative voices.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey defended his company’s decision, while Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took a shot at Twitter’s decision, saying his own social media company wouldn’t be an “arbiter of truth.”

But in a statement to Digital Trends, a Facebook spokesperson said the company supported Section 230 and believes the platform is one of “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,” the spokesperson said. “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.”

It’s unclear if the interpretation of Section 230 in Trump’s executive order will hold up in court, legal experts say.

The American Civil Liberties Union called the order a “blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”

“The president also has no authority to rewrite a congressional statute with an executive order imposing a flawed interpretation of Section 230. Section 230 incentivizes platforms to host all sorts of content without fear of being held liable for it. It enables speech, not censorship,” the ACLU said in a statement, noting that Trump’s own tweets are protected from removal by Section 230, which prevents Twitter from being held liable for his statements.

Consumer Technology Association (CTA) agrees that Trump’s signing of the executive order conflicts with existing law, calling it “unconstitutional” and “ill-considered.”

“Today’s announcement will burden innovators, reduce our international competitiveness and promote wasteful trial lawyer lawsuits,” said Gary Shapiro, president and CEO at CTA, in a statement. “While we support legitimate efforts to protect and enhance free speech, this executive order is not the answer.”

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