Rhetorically framed as defense of free speech, the President’s Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship, is exactly the opposite: an attempt to intimidate social media platforms into yielding to the president’s views of what speech should be allowed online.
While we agree that social media platforms “function in many ways as a 21st-century equivalent of the public square” and share concerns about free speech online, the president’s order will do nothing to make social media a more open space for free expression. On the contrary, it would further constrain speech online.
The executive order came in response to (or, more accurately, retaliation for) a fact-checking warning that Twitter placed on a pair of Trump tweets that claimed mail-in ballots will be fraudulent. Note: the tweets were NOT deleted; they remained fully visible, but were accompanied by a link that led to fact checks and news stories by media organizations.
The executive order directs executive branch agencies to ask independent rule-making agencies including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to study whether they can place new regulations on social media companies. The order threatens to gut Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects tech companies from being held liable for the content posted by their users and ensures that there can be a wide variety of individual expression online. For a detailed analysis of how the order would impact Section 230 see the analysis of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The order has been widely condemned – from both sides of the political spectrum – as unconstitutional and dangerous to the future of free expression online. The Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) filed a lawsuit challenging the order on Tuesday, June 2. The challenge is the first major legal test of Trump’s directive.
CDT argues that the White House had run afoul of the First Amendment, which “prohibits government officials from using government power to retaliate against an individual or entity for engaging in protected speech.” The mere existence of the policy could “chill” speech, undermining efforts by Facebook, Google and Twitter to ensure that their platforms are used responsibly during the presidential race.
Opinions differ as to how much social media companies should regulate the content on their platforms as misinformation proliferates, protests escalate and the 2020 U.S. presidential election looms. One thing on which there appears to be agreement is that social media, our 21st-century public square, should not be subject to the arbitrary control of the political powers of the day. But that, apparently, is not stopping the current president – and many other democracy-averse world leaders – from trying to bully social media companies into compliance.