Trump targets social media with executive order to limit liability protection

The White House has called on the FCC to regulate whether social media are liable for content posted on their platforms. An executive order issued by President Donald Trump instructed the Commerce Department to start a consultation at the FCC on enforcing part of the Communications Decency Act, a law from 1996 that protects online platforms from liability for user content. Trump claims some social media may not be protected by the law, as they have gone beyond 'good faith' efforts to remove objectionable content and started stifling free speech. 

The order comes a day after Twitter flagged two tweets by Trump for containing "potentially misleading information". The Trump tweets claimed mail-in ballots in US elections would lead to voter fraud, and Twitter referred readers to sources saying otherwise. This was the first time Twitter applied its fact-checking policy to the president. 

Political bias

Trump singled out Twitter in a statement, saying the selective labeling of tweets "reflects political bias" and was never applied to other politicians. "Online platforms are engaging in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse," he said. 

He also accused another unnamed US company of colluding with the Chinese government, by creating a search engine favourable to Communist Party policies, tracking users for surveillance and working in research partnerships in China with benefits to the Chinese military. Other unnamed companies have accepted advertisements and spread false information paid for by the Chinese government, Trump claimed. 

The order strikes at a core tenet of the internet, that distribution platforms would not be subject to the same copyright and civil liability risks as publishers of content. Trump claims the social media companies have gone beyond the rules allowing them to block harmful content and instead "engage in deceptive or pretextual actions (often contrary to their stated terms of service) to stifle viewpoints with which they disagree". As such, they should be exposed to the same liability as any publisher or editor. 

Political pressure

The order was condemned by several industry groups and civil rights organisations. The IAB accused the president of trying to the turn the internet "into a political arm of the US government" with a "blatantly illegal attempt to stifle facts and opinions with which the Administration disagrees". This was a tactic more in line with "juntas in places like Pakistan and Argentina", the IAB said. 

The CCIA said Trump was trying to pressure social media companies into adopting policies more favourable to his government. "Setting regulators upon the private sector to achieve that end is a grave misuse of government resources in a time of national crisis," the group said. Twitter was acting to address misinformation, as asked by policymakers, and limiting its protection under the communications law would undermine further such efforts. The action to change the law's interpretation were "not only unlawful, but irresponsible", the CCIA warned.

Twitter called the order "a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law". The existing law "protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values", the company said, adding that attempts to erode the law "threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms". 

Tiwtter CEO and co-founder Jack Dorsey responded earlier, saying he took responsibility for the company's action and employees should be "left out of this". Trump had singled out the group's site integrity officer for "political bias" in his statement. Dorsey said the company will "continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally. And we will admit to and own any mistakes we make".

Ad dollars

In addition to the proposed action by the FCC, the executive order contains a suggestion that the US government could withdraw its ad dollars from some social media. The order requires all federal government bodies to review their online advertising and report back to the Office of Management and Budget on how much and where they are spending. At the same time, the Department of Justice will review the "viewpoint-based speech restrictions" at each reported online platform to see whether they are "problematic vehicles for government speech due to viewpoint discrimination, deception to consumers, or other bad practices".

The FTC also will contribute, using its powers to investigate unfair trading practices and consumer fraud. It was ordered to look at whether social media companies "restrict speech in ways that do not align with those entities’ public representations about those practices". It's expected to draw up a report on complaints of alleged free speech violations by social media companies, and specifically Twitter, and make that public. 

The attorney general meanwhile is starting a working group to look at enforcement of state statutes that prohibit online platforms from engaging in unfair or deceptive acts or practices. The working group will also develop model legislation expanding such statutes for state legislatures to consider and look at whether federal legislation is possible to promote further the aims of the executive order.