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 him.

"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?"

Mr. Trump said that, if his lawyers could find a way to legally shut down Twitter, "I would do it."

Attorney General William Barr, speaking alongside the president, said the Justice Department would draft legislation for Congress on curtailing social-media companies' liability protections, which Mr. Trump said could include proposing to "just remove or totally change" Section 230. Mr. Barr said the executive order would return the federal law to its intended scope.

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 what isn't."

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 and influence.

"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 would be."

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 square."

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 Section 230.

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 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 article.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com and Rebecca Ballhaus at Rebecca.Ballhaus@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 28, 2020 17:13 ET (21:13 GMT)

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