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Trump Wants to Roll Back Social Media Legal Protections; Facebook and Twitter CEOs Weigh In

Todd Spangler

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President Donald Trump, triggered after Twitter applied fact-checking labels to two of his inaccurate tweets, will order U.S. regulators to reexamine a law that shields social-media companies from liability for content posted on their services, according to media reports.

Trump, in an executive order expected to be signed Thursday, also wants to establish something called the “White House Tech Bias Reporting Tool,” which would let U.S. citizens submit complaints if they feel they have been unfairly treated by social networks that would be referred to the Justice Department and the FTC for investigation, Reuters reported, citing a draft of the order.

The White House’s proposal would seek to curb protections afforded to internet companies under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act. According to the law, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” That lets companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter moderate content on their services as they see fit, while protecting them from lawsuits over content shared on them.

Trump’s order seeks to empower federal regulators to reinterpret Section 230, to examine whether content moderation policies of companies like Facebook and Twitter engage in “selective censoring” that would be grounds to remove their legal protections, per the New York Times.

Legal experts have said any proposed changes to Section 230 would likely get struck down by courts. Indeed, on Wednesday, the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple in a lawsuit filed by right-wing activists alleging the tech giants suppressed “politically conservative voices.” The court thew out the suit, ruling that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment applies only to government entities and not private companies.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in an interview with Fox News set to air Thursday, said he would need to know details of Trump’s executive order to comment specifically. “But in general, I think a government choosing to censor a platform because they’re worried about censorship doesn’t exactly strike me as the the right reflex there,” he said.

Zuckerberg, in an interview that aired on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” Thursday, claimed Facebook provides more protections for political speech than other internet companies. “There are clear lines that map to specific harms and damages,” Zuckerberg said. “But overall, including compared to some of the other companies, we try to be more on the side of giving people a voice and free expression.”

According to Zuckerberg, Facebook’s fact-checking policy is designed to catch “the worst of the worst stuff,” rather than trying to debunk claims by politicians. “I don’t think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth,” Zuckerberg said in the CNBC interview. “Political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy, and people should be able to see what politicians say.”

Although Facebook does use independent fact-checkers who review content on its social networks, the point of the fact-checkers is to “really catch the worst of the worst stuff,” Zuckerberg said.

Trump’s move to try to expose internet companies to greater legal culpability for how they treat content on their platforms comes after Twitter on Tuesday added fact-checking warning labels — for the first time — to a pair of the president’s tweets that contained falsehoods about mail-in ballots.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, in a tweet thread May 27, defended the company’s application of fact-checking labels to Trump’s tweets, saying that the president’s posts “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot.”

“We’ll continue to point out incorrect or disputed information about elections globally,” Dorsey wrote.

Dorsey asserted that Twitter’s policies do not “make us an ‘arbiter of truth.’” The CEO said, “Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves. More transparency from us is critical so folks can clearly see the why behind our actions.”

Advocacy groups, responding to news reports of Trump’s planned executive order, blasted it as an unconstitutional attempt to muffle the administration’s critics.

“This order is an effort to intimidate technology companies from using tools that are indispensable to protecting the integrity of public discourse online,” Jameel Jaffer, executive director at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement. Parts of Trump’s proposed order “raise additional constitutional concerns, since they seem to contemplate that the government will investigate and punish internet service providers for decisions that are protected by the First Amendment.”

The irony is that Donald Trump has been “a big beneficiary of Section 230” protections, ACLU senior legislative counsel Kate Ruane commented. “If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump’s lies, defamation, and threats,” she said in a statement.

In 2019, Trump floated the notion of targeting social-media companies with an order intended to restrict the ability of platforms to remove content — but the FCC and FTC reportedly pushed back on the idea over concerns that it was unconstitutional.

After Twitter labeled Trump’s tweets as misleading, the president’s supporters and a top White House aide launched targeted attacks on an individual Twitter employee who has posted anti-conservative tweets in the past. Dorsey, in his comments Wednesday, said “there is someone ultimately accountable for our actions as a company, and that’s me. Please leave our employees out of this.”

Separately, Twitter has taken no action against Trump’s account after the president posted multiple tweets promoting a long-debunked conspiracy theory that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough may have killed a former congressional aide in 2001. The company apologized for the “pain” Trump’s comments have caused to the family of the dead woman, Lori Klausutis, after her widowed husband appealed to Dorsey to remove Trump’s noxious posts.

Meanwhile, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also has criticized Section 230 — in fact, going further than Trump, by calling for it to be overturned. In a January interview with the New York Times, he said the law “immediately should be revoked” because Facebook “is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”