US President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order aimed at increasing the ability of the government to regulate social media platforms. Speaking from the Oval Office ahead of signing the order, Trump said that the move was to "defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history".
Trump said he will introduce legislation that may scrap or weaken a law that has protected internet companies, including Twitter and Facebook, in an extraordinary attempt to regulate social media platforms where he has been criticized.The order suggests companies should lose their protection over actions that are deceptive, discriminatory, opaque or inconsistent with their terms of service.
Trump said U.S. Attorney General William Barr will begin drafting legislation “immediately” to regulate social media companies.
Trump's actions seek to blunt Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act which immunises websites from legal liability for the comments of their users. According to the President, Twitter's fact checks amount to political activism and social media companies should not be shielded from lawsuits for what is posted on their platforms.
On Thursday, Trump acknowledged that legal challenges to the order are on the horizon, saying he was "sure they will be doing a lawsuit".
The order directs an agency within the Commerce Department to file a petition with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to clarify the scope of Section 230, a proposition that has already drawn rebukes from Democratic members of the commission. Another section of the order would encourage federal agencies to review their spending on social media advertising.
"This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!" Trump tweeted on Thursday morning. Trump railed on Twitter that tech giants "silence conservative voices." "We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen."
According to experts, signing the executive order is nothing more than a Trump-led distraction for the feeblest of fact checks by Twitter which took the form of a hyperlink, that tagged onto exactly two of Trump's tweets.
Twitter called the order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law” and said attempts to weaken Section 230 would “threaten the future of online speech.”
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey shared in public domain an updated version of the company's civic integrity policy. It says: "You may not use Twitter's services for the purpose of manipulating or interfering in elections or other civic processes. This includes posting or sharing content that may suppress participation or mislead people about when, where, or how to participate in a civic process."
Meanwhile, Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerberg took pains to distance his company from Twitter and its fight with Trump. "We have a different policy I think than Twitter on this," Zuckerberg told Fox News.
Both sites take down content that violates their terms of service, but Facebook's approach, he said, has "distinguished us from some of the other tech companies in terms of being stronger on free expression and giving people a voice." While Facebook does apply labels to misleading posts, it exempts from review posts by politicians, a decision that some lawmakers and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden say helps lies to flourish online.
A Google spokeswoman said the order would harm “America’s economy,” while a Facebook spokesman said it would “encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”
Can President Trump order changes to Section 230?
No. Only Congress can change Section 230. In 2018, the law was modified to make it possible to prosecute platforms that were used by alleged sex traffickers. As the power of internet companies has grown, some in Congress have also advocated changes to hold companies responsible for the spread of content celebrating acts of terror, for example, or for some types of hate speech.
Do other countries have an equivalent to Section 230?
The legal protections provided by Section 230 are unique to U.S. law, although the European Union and many other countries have some version of what are referred to as “safe harbor” laws that protect online platforms from liability if they move promptly when notified of illegal content.
The fact that the major internet companies are based in the United States also gives them protection.