US President Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Mint Business News - Official Channel

Why Trump’s Executive Order against protection for social media firms matters


United States (US) President, Donald Trump, on Thursday signed an Executive Order, which seeks to tone down the liability protection for companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, for what users post on their platforms. The law in question is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act set in the US about 30 years ago.

In India, Section 79 of the IT Act provides similar protection to companies, provided they do their due diligence based on other provisions of the law.

This is why WhatsApp can provide end-to-end encryption and tell governments it can’t read a user’s texts or provide access to them. It’s also why an Instagram can’t be sued for a debacle like the Bois Locker Room episode, where teenagers were found sharing photos of underage women through Instagram chat groups.

Trump’s order says that if an online provider intervenes in content on its platform, it will lose the protection of such liability. “When an interactive computer service provider removes or restricts access to content and its actions do not meet the criteria of subparagraph ( c)(2)(A), it is engaged in editorial conduct. It is the policy of the United States that such a provider should properly lose the limited liability shield of subparagraph ( c)(2)(A) and be exposed to liability like any traditional editor and publisher that is not an online provider," the order states.

“Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they’re a neutral platform, which they’re not, not an editor with a viewpoint," Trump said while signing the order.

Essentially, Trump is arguing that if social media firms seek protection from the fact that they cannot control what a user posts, then they shouldn’t be intervening with those posts either. “If Twitter has a promoted post or ad, which it is being paid for, then Twitter is the publisher for that and has every right to fact-check it. But if Twitter says it can’t control what regular users post on the platform, then it has no business applying fact-checking labels on those posts either," said policy head for a social media firm.

While the move was expected for a while now, it comes two days after Twitter put fact-checking warning labels on two of the President’s posts on its platform. Trump, many of his supporters, and even Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg opposed the move, though Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, stood by his companies decisions.

Twitter, Facebook and many others employ fact-checking organisations to scan posts, links, media etc. posted on their platforms and apply warning labels to content that may mislead users or spread false information. It’s common practice nowadays and Facebook recently said it had applied such labels to over 50 million pieces of content relating to the novel coronavirus on its platform in April this year. “They don’t do it for vaccines, but they’ll do it when covid happens," the policy head quoted above pointed out.

In Trump’s version, Twitter or Facebook may have to stop applying such labels automatically, instead letting fact-checkers do their job independently. Trump has often said that social media platforms are biased against right-wing ideas.

“In short, the order tasks government agencies with defining “good faith" and eventually deciding whether any platform’s decision to edit, remove, or otherwise moderate user-generated content meets it, upon pain of losing access to all of Section 230's protections," the Electronics Frontier Foundation wrote in a blog post.

The US President isn’t the only one who has tried to water down such provisions. Experts say the Indian government has also been trying to make similar changes to the provisions of Section 79 of the IT Act. According to another social media policy chief, the government here has tried to ask social media companies to monitor content more proactively, which could lead to more censorship.

Social media firms and policy experts have often opposed the removal or relaxation of this rule, saying it will only increase censorship on the Internet and hinder free speech. In fact, some say it could work against governments and politicians too, since social media firms will have to actively monitor and remove content they post that could be seen as defamatory, false etc.

President Trump’s move could set a precedent for other countries, though it doesn’t necessarily mean that they will follow them.

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