US President Donald Trump has signed an executive order which removed some of the legal protections given to social media platforms, few days after his Twitter fact-checking row.
Speaking to newsmen while signing the order which gives regulators the power to pursue legal actions against firms such as Facebook and Twitter for the way they police content on their platforms, the US President said the move was to “defend free speech from one of the gravest dangers it has faced in American history”.
“A small handful of social media monopolies controls a vast portion of all public and private communications in the United States.
“They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter, virtually any form of communication between private citizens and large public audiences.”
Under Section 230 of the US law, social networks are not generally held responsible for content posted by their users, but can engage in “good-Samaritan blocking” such as removing content that is obscene, harassing or violent.
The executive order however points out that this legal immunity does not apply if a social network edits content posted by its users, and calls for legislation from Congress to “remove or change” section 230. Mr Trump said Attorney General William Barr will “immediately” begin crafting a law for Congress to later vote on. It also says “deceptive” blocking of posts, including removing a post for reasons other than those described in a website’s terms of service, should not be offered immunity.
The executive order also calls for:
- the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to spell out what type of content blocking will be considered deceptive, pretextual or inconsistent with a service provider’s terms and conditions
- a review of government advertising on social-media sites and whether those platforms impose viewpoint-based restrictions
- the re-establishment of the White House “tech bias reporting tool” that lets citizens report unfair treatment by social networks
The order also accuses social media platforms of “invoking inconsistent, irrational, and groundless justifications to censor or otherwise punish Americans’ speech here at home.” It specifically cites Twitter for “selectively” applying warning labels to “certain tweets.” It also faults Google for helping the Chinese government surveil its citizens; Twitter for spreading Chinese propaganda; and Facebook for profiting from Chinese advertising.
In a long-shot legal bid, the order seeks to curtail the power of large social media platforms by reinterpreting a critical 1996 law that shields websites and tech companies from lawsuits.
Legal observers described the action as “political theater”, arguing that the order does not change existing federal law and will have no bearing on federal courts. They also argued that it be unconstitutional because it risks infringing on the First Amendment rights of private companies, and because it attempts to circumvent the two other branches of government.
Twitter has however described Trump’s order as “a politicized approach to a landmark law,” saying attempts to erode the decades-old legal immunity may “threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms.”
Google, which owns YouTube, said changing Section 230 would “hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.”
Google told BBC;
“We have clear content policies and we enforce them without regard to political viewpoint. Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences.”
Facebook also pushed back at the executive order. The social media platform’s spokesperson, Andy Stone said in a statement;
By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”
This is coming after the US President told his followers on Twitter to “stay tuned” after the social media platform applied a fact-check on two of his tweets, including one that claimed that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud.
Offering its explanation for doing so, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey said the claim might “mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot.”