Donald Trump ordered a wide-ranging review of the law that underpins how social media platforms operate, in a move which threatens to undermine legal protections internet companies have enjoyed for decades.
The US president on Thursday signed an order instructing his officials to re-examine the 1996 law that granted social media companies immunity from being sued for content which appeared on their platforms, or for removing content. Section 230 of the law, the Communications Decency Act, has been dubbed the “26 words that created the internet”.
The president’s review — one of several moves designed to check what his supporters say is anticonservative bias shown by social media companies — comes after a bitter row with Twitter, which placed “fact check notices” against two of his tweets earlier this week.
“Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they’re a neutral platform, which they’re not,” Mr Trump said on Thursday, labelling the company an “editor with a viewpoint”.
“My executive order calls for new regulations under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it that social media companies that engage in censoring or any political conduct will not be able to keep their liability shield. That’s a big deal.”
Even before Mr Trump signed the order, technology groups accused him of exceeding his authority, and said they were considering taking his administration to court, while activists accused him of restricting free speech.
Under the president’s order, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration would ask the Federal Communications Commission, an independent government agency, to “clarify” parts of section 230 in a way that would make it harder in particular for Twitter and others to remove content without giving users a “reasonable explanation”, adequate notice, or opportunity to respond.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” Mr Trump said, adding that large social media companies had “unchecked power” to censor and restrict human interaction.
Facebook said limiting section 230 could force platforms to impose more restrictions on what users post, not fewer. “By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalise companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone,” it said.
Twitter declined to comment.
Ajit Pai, the chair of the FCC, did not commit to taking any action based on the executive order, but he said in a statement: “This debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”
The executive order also gives the Federal Trade Commission new powers to respond to complaints of online bias — after Mr Trump last year launched a campaign to gather such claims from members of the public — and aims to curb advertising by federal agencies on social media platforms that are found to “restrict free speech”.
Additionally, it promises to encourage states to legislate to prevent platforms from engaging in “unfair or deceptive acts”, weighing data on whether algorithms suppress user content based on their political viewpoint, for example.
Already industry groups were contemplating legal action, according to their representatives in Washington — even though experts say the president’s move carries little legal weight.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobbying group in the country, said: “We believe that free speech and the right to engage in commerce are foundational to the American free enterprise system. Regardless of the circumstances that led up to this, this is not how public policy is made in the United States. An executive order cannot be properly used to change federal law.”
Mr Trump acknowledged lawsuits against his proposal were likely but said “we’re fed up with it”.
On Tuesday, Twitter added labels to tweets from Mr Trump claiming that postal ballots were “fraudulent” and their use would lead to a “rigged election”, prompting a rapidly escalating war of words between the president and Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, weighed in against Mr Dorsey, telling the Fox News channel that private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Facebook has refused to take down an identical post by Mr Trump on its platform to the one that Twitter fact checked.