United States President, Donald Trump, on Thursday signed an executive order seeking to strip social media giants like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram of legal immunity for content on their platforms, in a move slammed by his critics as a legally dubious act of political revenge.
The executive order calls on government regulators to evaluate if online platforms should be eligible for liability protection for content posted by their millions of users.
If enforced, the action would upend decades of precedent and treat internet platforms as “publishers” potentially liable for user-generated content.
Trump told reporters at the White House after signing the order that he acted because big tech firms “have had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.”
“We can’t let this continue to happen,” Trump added.
The move come a day after an angry tirade from Trump against Twitter, after the platform for the first time labelled two of his tweets, on the contentious topic of mail-in voting, with fact-check notices, calling them misleading.
“In those moments, Twitter ceases to be a neutral public platform and they become an editor with a viewpoint.
“And I think we can say that about others also, whether you’re looking at Google, whether you’re looking at Facebook, perhaps others,” Trump said.
The White House seeks to sidestep the provisions giving internet firms immunity by treating them as publishers operating in part of a “public square.”
“Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube wield immense, if not unprecedented, the power to shape the interpretation of public events; to censor, delete, or disappear information; and to control what people see or do not see,” the executive order said.
While the Trump’s order would not prevent platforms from moderating content, it could open them up to a flood of lawsuits from anyone who claims to be harmed by content posted online.
Critics, however, said Trump has no authority to regulate private internet operators or change the law known as Section 230 which supporters say has allowed online platforms like Facebook and Twitter to flourish.
Those against the executive order said the action represents a dangerous effort by the government to regulate online speech.
The American Civil Liberties Union called Trump’s order “a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”
Eric Goldman, director of the High-Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University, said the order was “more about political theater than about changing the law.”
The order “is not legally supportable, it flies in the face of more than 900 court decisions,” Goldman said.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of Federal Communications Commission, one of the agencies tasked with enforcing the executive order, said: “Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the FCC into the President’s speech police is not the answer.”
Also, the president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, Matt Schruers, warned that “retaliation against the private sector for fact-checking leadership is what we expect from foreign autocracies, not the United States.”
Although, internet firms have denied Trump’s claims of bias, and point to his massive social media following.
But the president’s move plays into his narrative ahead of his November reelection bid that liberal forces are trying to censor Republicans.
Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican and fierce critic of social media, said that if online firms “are going to editorialize and censor and act like traditional publishers, they should be treated like traditional publishers and stop receiving the special carve-out from the federal government.”
But Democratic Senator, Ron Wyden, one of the authors of the 1996 law, called Trump’s order a “plainly illegal” political ploy.
“Trump is desperately trying to steal for himself the power of the courts and Congress to rewrite decades of settled law around Section 230. All for the ability to spread lies,” Wyden said.