REUTERS/Leah Millis

Trump signs executive order to tear up protections for social media

Image credit: Donald Trump in White House

US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order aiming to change or scrap a law which protects companies from liability for the content posted by third parties on their internet platforms, following his spat with Twitter.

This week, Twitter added a fact-checking notice to a tweet from Trump which contained false information about postal ballots. Twitter's note linked to a page containing trusted information debunking his misleading claims. It has continued to add fact-checking notices to other tweets since.

Trump responded with fury, accusing social media companies of having an anti-conservative bias and promising to “strongly regulate or close them down”. He took to Twitter again afterwards to claim that Twitter’s fact-checking activity would lead to “MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE” and the end of the Republican Party.

Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, providers of internet platforms are not treated as the publisher of information provided by third parties. This rule – which is considered by many to be a foundational rule of the internet, dating back to 1996 – has been frequently challenged and protections are not absolutely limitless. For instance, social media platforms are required in the US to remove material which violates sex trafficking laws.

Now, Trump is threatening to weaken this rule or scrap it entirely as part of a draft executive order. Trump said that US Attorney General William Barr would begin drafting legislation “immediately” to regulate social media companies.

The next step will be for the Department of Commerce to call on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt the rules. The FCC will then review the order and either reject it or formulate a final set of rules.

Trump indicated that this legislation could have bipartisan support: “I’ve been called by Democrats that want to do this, so I think you could possibly have a bipartisan situation”.

Criticism of the behaviour of internet companies comes from all parts of the political spectrum, with many on the left arguing that Section 230 has been abused to give social media companies a free pass on harmful content such as terrorist propaganda and hate speech. However, it is unlikely that this particular piece of legislation – which attempts to bypass Congress and the Courts – will receive sufficient support. Law experts have been quick to point out that Trump’s draft executive order is very unlikely to hold up to legal scrutiny.

Yale University constitutional law expert Professor Jack Balkin told Reuters: “The president is trying to frighten, coerce, scare, cajole social media companies to leave him alone and not do what Twitter has just done to him.”

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the draft order “outrageous” and a distraction from the coronavirus pandemic, which has killed more than 100,000 Americans. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has said that the order is “not the answer” to concerns about the behaviour of social media companies, although fellow Commissioner Brendan Carr expressed support for the order.

Twitter criticised the executive order as “a reactionary and politicised approach to a landmark law” which could threaten the future of online speech, while a Facebook spokesperson said that the proposed changes will “encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone”. A Google spokesperson said that the order would harm the US economy.

Thomas Jarzombek, who manages tech affairs at the German Ministry of Economic Affairs, tweeted at Twitter and its CEO Jack Dorsey, inviting them to relocate to Germany where they would be “free to criticise the government as well as to fight fake news”.

Later, Twitter took further action against Trump’s activity on its platform, hiding one of his tweets which broke the rules for “glorifying violence”. The tweet can still be viewed with a click and will remain on the site due to public interest, Twitter said.

The offending tweet referred to protestors in Minneapolis as “THUGS” and commented “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The protests, which were organised in response to video evidence of the death of a black man, George Floyd, at the hands of police officers, have escalated in their third night.


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