WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday signed an executive order that could open the door for federal regulators to punish Facebook, Google and Twitter for the way they police online content.
The move was a major broadside against Silicon Valley that quickly triggered wide-ranging political opposition and threats of a legal challenge.
Trump has portrayed the order, the early details of which were first reported by The Washington Post late Wednesday, as an attempt to stamp out political bias on the part of the country’s largest social media platforms. His directive comes days after Twitter steered viewers of some of the president’s tweets to news articles that fact-checked his claims, a move Trump said was a form of censorship.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” Trump said before signing the document.
But advocates for the tech sector, lawmakers in Congress and a variety of legal experts from across the political spectrum Thursday doubted the legality of Trump’s draft proposal and feared its implications for free speech. Others questioned whether the U.S. government could even carry out the order as the president intended. Some in the tech industry began discussing their legal options, including a potential lawsuit challenging Trump’s order once it is signed, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
“This is simply setting the wheels of law enforcement and regulation in motion against a private company for questioning the president,” said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a Washington trade group that represents Facebook, Google and other tech companies.
Trump’s order would pave the way for U.S. agencies to revisit and potentially undo longstanding legal protections known as Section 230, which spares tech giants from being held liable for the content they allow online and their own moderation decisions. The directive specifically could open the door for the Federal Communications Commission to rethink the scope of the law, the people familiar with the document said. A change could have dramatic free-speech implications and wide-ranging consequences for a broad swath of companies reliant on doing business on the internet.
The order also might channel complaints about political bias to the Federal Trade Commission, which would be encouraged to probe whether tech companies’ content-moderation policies are in keeping with their pledges of neutrality. It further creates a council, along with state attorneys general, to probe allegations of political bias, while tasking federal agencies with reviewing their spending on social media advertising, according to the people familiar with the White House’s thinking.
“In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to handpick the speech that Americans may access and convey online,” according to an undated draft version of the executive order obtained by The Post late Wednesday.
The order marks the White House’s most significant salvo against Silicon Valley after years of verbal broadsides and regulatory threats from Trump and his top deputies. It also might raise fresh, thorny questions about the First Amendment, the future of expression online and the extent to which the White House can properly — and legally — influence the decisions private companies make about their apps, sites and services.
It is not clear, though, if the FTC and FCC plan to take the actions sought by the president. The agencies are independent, operating separately from Trump’s Cabinet, leaving enforcement to their discretion. The FCC declined to comment, and the FTC did not respond Thursday.
Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat FCC commissioner, blasted the draft order Thursday as unworkable.
“Social media can be frustrating,” she said in a statement. “But an executive order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the president’s speech police is not the answer.”
Others fretted that the proposal Trump signed threatens to circumvent Congress.
“The idea you could have an executive order that reinterprets a clear statute that Congress passed, that has been interpreted by the courts for over 20-plus years, as recently as yesterday ... is just nonsense,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who leads tech policy work for Stand Together, an organization backed by industrialist Charles Koch.
The White House declined to comment.
Late Wednesday, Trump accused tech giants of trying to censor conservatives ahead of the 2020 election. On Thursday, he added on Twitter, “This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”
Trump is one of social media’s most prolific, influential users. He’s armed with a Twitter account that reaches more than 80 million people and a campaign war chest that has made the president one of the most pervasive advertisers on Facebook and Google. But he also is one of the internet’s most controversial voices. He previously has shared and tweeted posts, photos and videos that appear to run afoul of major tech companies’ guidelines that prohibit or discourage harmful, abusive or false content.
For years, Twitter, in particular, largely allowed Trump to share his views unfettered anyway, saying that even his most controversial tweets were in the public interest. But fierce blowback eventually forced Twitter to reconsider its hands-off approach, culminating in the company’s first-ever attempt on Tuesday to label the president’s tweets about mail-in ballots.
Trump responded by claiming that major social media companies are biased against conservatives, threatening to “strongly regulate, or close them down” in response.
Until this week, Trump had issued only threats to regulate or penalize Facebook, Twitter and Google-owned YouTube over a range of claims, even suggesting at one point that the industry tried to undermine his election. Previously, however, the White House has backed down, even shelving prior versions of its executive order targeting social media companies.
But tensions reached a new, public height in July, when the president convened a “social media summit” at the White House featuring GOP lawmakers and Republican strategists, an event seen at the time as a precursor for further action to come. The event drew sharp rebukes from digital experts and congressional Democrats, who said Trump had used the backdrop of the White House to condone some of his supporters’ most provocative, controversial online tactics.
That same month, the Justice Department opened a wide-ranging review of the tech industry, which, since then, has blossomed into a full inquiry on Section 230. Attorney General William P. Barr has raised the possibility that the U.S. government could seek changes to the rules.