Even before it was signed Thursday, President Donald Trump’s executive order encouraging federal regulators to reconsider legal immunity for social media companies was pilloried by a diverse coalition of opponents who questioned the order’s legality and Trump’s motivations.
The order, signed by Trump on the heels of a multiday online tirade aimed at Twitter after the company fact-checked a pair of the president’s tweets about mail-in voting, would direct federal agencies to reexamine Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
Section 230, which prevents online publishers — including companies such as Twitter and Facebook — from being sued over third-party content posted on their websites, is a prized liability shield for Silicon Valley that experts have credited with playing a crucial role in fostering the growth of the internet as a bastion of free speech and expression.
But Trump and his allies, who have accused Big Tech platforms of censoring conservative viewpoints on their sites, have long considered changes to Section 230 as a way of exerting pressure on the companies.
“A small handful of powerful social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States,” Trump said before signing the order. “They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens and public audiences.”
Trump was joined in the Oval Office by Attorney General William Barr, who said Section 230 “has been stretched way beyond its original intent.”
Specifically, the executive order directs the Commerce Department to ask the Federal Communications Commission, an independent agency, to propose new regulations clarifying actions by online publishers that might violate Section 230. The order also directs the Federal Trade Commission to review thousands of complaints of online censorship submitted to the White House by the public.
The order also asks federal agencies to enumerate and report to the White House Office of Management and Budget on how much they are spending on social media. And it tasks Barr to work with state authorities to see if social media platforms are engaging in any unfair and deceptive acts or practices that may violate state laws.
Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz endorsed the president's actions. “For too long, social media platforms like Twitter have hid behind their opaque algorithms and Section 230 immunity to target speech with which they disagree and advance their own political agendas,” Cruz said in a statement. "This doesn’t just stifle Americans’ free speech; it shapes what Americans see, hear, and ultimately think about the major issues facing our country, including how those issues should be addressed and who should be elected to address them."
A draft of the executive order circulated throughout Washington and Silicon Valley this week drew swift condemnation from industry groups, free speech advocates and Democratic lawmakers.
“America's internet companies lead the world and it is incredible that our own political leaders would seek to censor them for political purposes,” said Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association, the country’s largest trade group for technology companies. “These same politicians extensively advertise on them and just a few minutes online will reveal these platforms contain a multitude of political views.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who helped write Section 230, called Trump’s order “plainly illegal” and accused him of “desperately trying to steal for himself the power of the courts and Congress to rewrite decades of settled law around Section 230 all for the ability to spread unfiltered lies.”
“I have warned for years that this administration was threatening [Section 230] in order to chill speech and bully companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter into giving him favorable treatment,” Wyden said in a statement. “Today Trump proved me right.”
Alexandra Givens, chief executive of the nonpartisan Center for Democracy and Technology, said Trump’s order uses “the threat of regulation to try to coerce social media companies into moderating speech the way the president sees fit.”
“That runs directly counter to the First Amendment,” said Givens in a statement. “Congress designed Section 230 so that intermediaries can moderate the content they host. President Trump may not like the results of that moderation, but he cannot change the law by fiat.”
Conservative organizations also slammed the order.
“This executive order misreads the law and mistakes the role of government,” said Billy Easley II, a senior technology policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity. “Censorship comes from the government trying to police speech — not private companies. People, not the tools they use, are responsible for their words and actions online.”
Some Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have questioned whether changes to Section 230 are needed. The California Democrat criticized the executive order but said Trump should focus on pressuring online companies to curb the spread of disinformation on their sites.
“The [order] does nothing to address big internet companies’ complete failure to fight the spread of disinformation,” Pelosi said. “Instead, the president is encouraging Facebook and other social media giants to continue to exploit and profit off falsehoods with total impunity while at the same time directing the federal government to dismantle efforts to help users distinguish fact from fiction.”