By John D. McKinnon and Rebecca Ballhaus
WASHINGTON -- President Trump signed an executive order on
Thursday seeking to limit the broad legal protection that federal
law currently provides to social-media and other online platforms,
a move that is expected to draw immediate court challenges.
The order seeks to make it easier for federal regulators to hold
companies such as Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. liable if they are
deemed to be unfairly curbing users' speech by, for example,
suspending their accounts or deleting their posts.
Mr. Trump signed the order after Twitter on Tuesday moved for
the first time to apply a fact-checking notice to tweets by the
president on the subject of voter fraud.
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office Thursday as he prepared
to sign the order, Mr. Trump accused Twitter of acting as an editor
"with a viewpoint" and described the platform's fact-check of his
tweets as "political activism." He said he would delete his Twitter
account "in a heartbeat" if he felt the news media were fair to
"We're here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest
dangers, " the president said. He acknowledged the order would
likely be challenged in court, but added: "What isn't?"
Attorney General William Barr, speaking alongside the president,
said the Justice Department would draft legislation for Congress on
curtailing social-media companies' liability protections. He said
the executive order would return the federal law to its intended
The order escalates an already heated fight over how big
social-media platforms handle politically charged content. The
companies long resisted stronger moderation efforts, and have
struggled to address growing pressure to combat the proliferation
of misinformation and other problematic content in a way that
avoids fueling criticism that they are inconsistent, biased or
stifling free expression.
The executive order marks the Trump administration's most
aggressive effort against social-media companies. The president has
threatened for years to counteract what he and many conservatives
see as a systemic bias against their political positions on social
media. His campaign on Thursday sent supporters an email seeking to
raise money off the president's feud with Twitter.
The order will likely be challenged in court, experts said, on
grounds that it oversteps the government's authority in restricting
the platforms' legal protections, which federal courts have
interpreted broadly. It also could be challenged on grounds that it
violates their First Amendment protections.
The White House declined to comment.
Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, in a CNBC interview
aired earlier Thursday, backed his stance of largely not
interfering with politicians' posts on the company's platform.
"I don't think Facebook or internet platforms in general should
be arbiters of truth," Mr. Zuckerberg said. "I think that's kind of
a dangerous line to get to in terms of deciding what is true and
Tech-industry officials criticized the president's plan. "All
Americans should be concerned to find a U.S. president issuing
executive orders in response to a company that challenges the
veracity of his statements," said Matt Schruers, president of the
Computer & Communications Industry Association.
Daphne Keller, a former associate general counsel at Google who
is now director of the Program on Platform Regulation at Stanford
University's Cyber Policy Center, said the White House order is
largely rhetoric without legal foundation. But she said it reflects
an almost unsolvable bind for the tech companies given their size
"They get it from both sides: Powerful voices demand that they
take down more speech, and other powerful voices demand that they
take down less," she said. "There is no way for them to win, since
no one will ever agree on what the exact right speech policies
The White House order seeks to reshape the way federal
regulators view Twitter and other social-media companies -- not as
hosts of speech but as gatekeepers that control millions of
Americans' daily experiences on their platforms.
"In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression,
we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to handpick
the speech that Americans may access and convey online," the order
says. "When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions
with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power."
The order also lays groundwork for treating the platforms as
places where individuals' First Amendment rights should be
protected, terming them "a 21st-century equivalent of the public
The order is far-reaching in scope, setting up multiple ways for
the government to attack what the administration views as the
problem of online censorship.
The most important way is by seeking to scale back the sweeping
legal protections that Washington established for online platforms
in the 1990s, in the internet's early days. Those protections were
created by Congress in Section 230 of the 1996 Communications
Decency Act. That law gives online companies broad immunity from
liability for their users' actions, as well as wide latitude to
police content on their sites.
Critics across the political spectrum have argued that the law
now provides the tech giants too much power, while the platforms
argue that it is essential to the internet's functioning.
In essence, the White House order asserts that tech companies
should lose their Section 230 protection if they take action to
discriminate against users or limit their access to a platform
without providing a fair hearing, or in ways that aren't spelled
out in the platform's terms of service.
The order directs the Commerce Department to petition the
Federal Communications Commission to set up a rule-making
proceeding to clarify the scope of Section 230. A key focus of that
proceeding would be to determine when platforms have failed to live
up to their obligations to act in "good faith" under the law when
they police content.
Some experts say the FCC has no legal authority to enforce
Matt Perault, a former Facebook public policy director who is
now director of Duke University's Center on Science &
Technology Policy, said that the executive order is legally flawed
and that, if it did succeed, stripping Section 230 protections
would likely lead to the platforms having to moderate content more
strictly, not less.
Mr. Perault also said Twitter's move is likely counterproductive
for the tech companies. "What Twitter did was unhelpful," he said.
"It's likely that few people received new, helpful information from
the fact check, and instead it will rally the Republican base in
support of policies that will harm the internet."
Federal regulators, including the Federal Trade Commission, also
could begin to look into complaints of online bias once the
executive order is promulgated. A reporting tool the administration
set up earlier collected more than 16,000 complaints in a matter of
weeks, the draft order says. The FTC, for example, could begin to
take enforcement action against companies that limit users' speech
in a manner that isn't fully disclosed in their terms of service,
or is contrary to the platforms' public claims, on grounds that
that constitutes an unfair or deceptive trade practice.
The Justice Department also would convene a working group of
state attorneys general to look into complaints under the order,
and federal agencies would be directed to review their advertising
contracts with companies that engage in speech censorship.
Given the legal and regulatory challenges involved, it would
likely be months before any actions proposed in the draft executive
order would take effect on social-media platforms. For now, the
initiative casts Mr. Trump as fighting for the rights of his base
against a tech-industry establishment that his supporters widely
view as biased in favor of liberal positions.
Trump administration officials have been discussing the
executive order in various forms since 2018, as the president grew
increasingly frustrated with tech companies, people familiar with
the discussions said. In recent weeks, those discussions have
picked up again. In mid-May, Mr. Trump tweeted that the "Radical
Left" was in "total command & control" of Facebook, Instagram,
Twitter and Google and said the administration was "working to
remedy this illegal situation."
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said in a
tweet on Thursday: "If President Trump doesn't like Twitter, he can
do everyone a favor and stop tweeting."
Deepa Seetharaman and Jeff Horwitz contributed to this
Write to John D. McKinnon at firstname.lastname@example.org and Rebecca
Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
May 28, 2020 16:57 ET (20:57 GMT)
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