This morning President Trump tweeted about the possibility of strongly regulating or even shutting down social media platforms which attempt to “silence conservative voices.” Those tweets didn’t specify any particular site but were generally seen as a reaction to the fact that Twitter added some fact-checks to some of Trump’s tweets. In fact, a few hours later, the president did single out Twitter for criticism. His tweet ended “Big action to follow!”
This afternoon, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters on Air Force One that the big action was in fact about to happen in the form of an executive order aimed at social media companies.
.@realDonaldTrump will sign an executive order shortly about social media and internet companies, @PressSec tells reporters on Air Force One. The president has been very critical of @Twitter in the last 24 hours.
— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) May 27, 2020
On the flight back to Washington, press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters President Trump is going to sign some kind of executive order on social media. No further details appear to have been offered, but it comes after he lashed out over fact checks on his tweets.
— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) May 27, 2020
Initially it seemed it might happen today but the White House quickly clarified that the executive order will be signed Thursday.
Just minutes later, WH pool was told that the social media executive order will actually be signed tomorrow not tonight. But still few details on what is in the EO.
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) May 27, 2020
What no one seems to know is what the order will say. But we’re not entirely in the dark because this isn’t the first time the administration has floated an executive order on this topic. Last August, Politico reported a draft version of an executive order was circulating but even then the details were vague:
The White House is circulating drafts of a proposed executive order that would address allegations of anti-conservative bias by social media companies, according to a White House official and two other people familiar with the matter — a month after President Donald Trump pledged to explore “all regulatory and legislative solutions” on the issue…
None of the three people could say what penalties, if any, the order would envision for companies deemed to be censoring political viewpoints. The order, which deals with other topics besides tech bias, is still in the early drafting stages and is not expected to be issued imminently.
A few days later, CNN got a copy of the draft and reported that the proposal involved asking the FCC to “develop new regulations clarifying how and when the law protects social media websites when they decide to remove or suppress content on their platforms.” In addition, the EO would require the FTC to monitor complaints of bias from users:
The FTC will also be asked to open a public complaint docket, according to the summary, and to work with the FCC to develop a report investigating how tech companies curate their platforms and whether they do so in neutral ways. Companies whose monthly user base accounts for one-eighth of the U.S. population or more could find themselves facing scrutiny, the summary said, including but not limited to Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat.
The Trump administration’s proposal seeks to significantly narrow the protections afforded to companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Under the current law, internet companies are not liable for most of the content that their users or other third parties post on their platforms. Tech platforms also qualify for broad legal immunity when they take down objectionable content, at least when they are acting “in good faith.”
At the time, there was a meeting between the FCC and FTC and questions were raised about the constitutionality of the proposed order:
In a closed-door meeting last month, officials from the two agencies met to discuss the matter with a US Commerce Department office that advises the White House on telecommunications, the people said.
A key issue raised in the meeting was the possibility the Trump administration’s plan may be unconstitutional, one of the people said. The draft order — a summary of which CNN obtained this month — proposes to put the FCC and FTC in charge of overseeing claims of partisan censorship on social media. But critics of the idea, including some legislators and policy analysts in the tech community, say it amounts to appointing a government “speech police” in violation of the First Amendment.
Of course that was eight months ago so it’s possible work has been done to revise the proposal since then. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to see if what Trump unveils looks like the earlier proposal and how it has changed since it was circulated last year. In the meantime, it seems he has at least one Senator on board with doing something about #BigTech.
Time & time again we have seen Twitter exploit its immunity to silence the voices of those with whom Silicon Valley billionaires disagree. But yesterday the company stooped to a new political low, using its ubiquitous platform to target the President of the United States.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) May 27, 2020
Big Tech is the single biggest threat facing our democracy. We know in 2016 social media companies had an outsized role in influencing our presidential election. With another presidential election months away, we need to take action now to curtail that influence.
— Senator Ted Cruz (@SenTedCruz) May 27, 2020