Trump Plans Legislation Targeting Social Media Immunity

By and | May 29, 2020

President Donald Trump said he will introduce legislation that may scrap or weaken a law that has protected internet companies, including Twitter and Facebook, in an extraordinary attempt to regulate social media platforms where he has been criticized.

The proposed legislation is part of an executive order Trump signed on Thursday afternoon. Trump had attacked Twitter for tagging his tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud about mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact-check the posts.

Trump wants to “remove or change” a provision of a law known as Section 230 that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users.

Trump said U.S. Attorney General William Barr will begin drafting legislation “immediately” to regulate social media companies.

What’s in the law protecting internet companies – and can Trump change it?

By Jonathan Weber and Elizabeth Culliford

(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to order a review of a federal law known as Section 230, which protects internet companies like Facebook, Twitter and Alphabet’s Google from being responsible for the material posted by users.

WHAT IS SECTION 230?

The core purpose of Section 230 is to protect the owners of any “interactive computer service” from liability for anything posted by third parties. The idea was that such protection was necessary to encourage the emergence of new types of communications and services at the dawn of the Internet era.

Section 230 was enacted in 1996 as part of a law called the Communications Decency Act, which was primarily aimed at curbing online pornography. Most of that law was struck down by the courts as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech, but Section 230 remains.

In practice, the law shields any website or service that hosts content – like news outlets’ comment sections, video services like YouTube and social media services like Facebook and Twitter – from lawsuits over content posted by users.

When the law was written, site owners worried they could be sued if they exercised any control over what appeared on their sites, so the law includes a provision that says that, so long as sites act in “good faith,” they can remove content that is offensive or otherwise objectionable.

The statute does not protect copyright violations, or certain types of criminal acts. Users who post illegal content can themselves still be held liable in court.

The technology industry and others have long held that Section 230 is a crucial protection, though the statute has become increasingly controversial as the power of internet companies has grown.

WHAT PROMPTED THE CREATION OF SECTION 230?

In the early days of the Internet, there were several high-profile cases in which companies tried to suppress criticism by suing the owners of the platforms.

One famous case involved a lawsuit by Stratton Oakmont, the brokerage firm depicted in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie “The Wolf of Wall Street,” against the early online service Prodigy. The court found that Prodigy was liable for allegedly defamatory comments by a user because it was a publisher that moderated the content on the service.

The fledgling internet industry was worried that such liability would make a range of new services impossible. Congress ultimately agreed and included Section 230 in the Communications Decency Act.

WHAT DOES SECTION 230 HAVE TO DO WITH POLITICAL BIAS?

President Trump and others who have attacked Section 230 say it has given big internet companies too much legal protection and allowed them to escape responsibility for their actions.

Some conservatives, including the president, have alleged that they are subject to online censorship on social media sites, a claim the companies have generally denied.

Section 230, which is often misinterpreted, does not require sites to be neutral. Most legal experts believe any effort to require political neutrality by social media companies would be a violation of the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

CAN PRESIDENT TRUMP ORDER CHANGES TO SECTION 230?

No. Only Congress can change Section 230. In 2018, the law was modified to make it possible to prosecute platforms that were used by alleged sex traffickers. As the power of internet companies has grown, some in Congress have also advocated changes to hold companies responsible for the spread of content celebrating acts of terror, for example, or for some types of hate speech.

A draft of Trump’s May executive order, seen by Reuters, instead calls for the Federal Communications Commission to “propose and clarify regulations” under Section 230. The order suggests companies should lose their protection over actions that are deceptive, discriminatory, opaque or inconsistent with their terms of service.

DO OTHER COUNTRIES HAVE AN EQUIVALENT TO SECTION 230?

The legal protections provided by Section 230 are unique to U.S. law, although the European Union and many other countries have some version of what are referred to as “safe harbor” laws that protect online platforms from liability if they move promptly when notified of illegal content.

The fact that the major internet companies are based in the United States also gives them protection.

(Reporting by Jonathan Weber and Elizabeth Culliford; Editing by Greg Mitchell and Nick Zieminski)

On Wednesday, Reuters reported the White House’s plan to modify Section 230 based on a copy of a draft executive order that experts said was unlikely to survive legal scrutiny. The final version of the order released on Thursday had no major changes except for the proposal for a federal legislation.

“What I think we can say is we’re going to regulate it,” Trump said before the signing of the order.

“I’ve been called by Democrats that want to do this, so I think you could possibly have a bipartisan situation,” said Republican Trump, who is running for re-election in November.

Twitter called the order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law” and said attempts to weaken Section 230 would “threaten the future of online speech.”

A Google spokeswoman said the order would harm “America’s economy,” while a Facebook spokesman said it would “encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

The order, as written, attempts to circumvent Congress and the courts in directing changes to long-established interpretations of Section 230. It represents his latest attempt to use the tools of the presidency to force private companies to change policies that he believes are not favorable to him.

“In terms of presidential efforts to limit critical commentary about themselves, I think one would have to go back to the Sedition Act of 1798 – which made it illegal to say false things about the president and certain other public officials – to find an attack supposedly rooted in law by a president on any entity which comments or prints comments about public issues and public people,” said First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams.

Jack Balkin, a Yale University constitutional law professor, said “the president is trying to frighten, coerce, scare, cajole social media companies to leave him alone and not do what Twitter has just done to him.”

Twitter’s shares ended over 4 percent down on Thursday. Facebook ended down 1.6 percent and Google parent Alphabet Inc finished slightly up.

Trump, who uses Twitter virtually every day to promote his policies and insult his opponents, has long claimed without evidence that the site is biased in favor of Democrats. He and his supporters have leveled the same unsubstantiated charges against Facebook, which Trump’s presidential campaign uses heavily as an advertising vehicle.

On Thursday, Trump said there is nothing he would rather do than get rid of his Twitter account but he had to keep it in order to circumvent the press and get his version of events to millions of followers.

He took to Twitter again Thursday night to cast doubt around voting by mail, tweeting the practice would lead to “MASSIVE FRAUD AND ABUSE” and “THE END OF OUR GREAT REPUBLICAN PARTY.”

The protections of Section 230 have been under fire for different reasons from lawmakers including Big Tech critic Senator Josh Hawley. Critics argue that they give internet companies a free pass on things like hate speech and content that supports terror organizations.

Social media companies have been under pressure from many quarters, both in the United States and other countries, to better control misinformation and harmful content on their services.

Twitter Chief Executive Jack Dorsey said on the company’s website late Wednesday that the president’s tweets “may mislead people into thinking they don’t need to register to get a ballot. Our intention is to connect the dots of conflicting statements and show the information in dispute so people can judge for themselves.”

After labeling Trump’s tweets, Twitter continued to add fact-checking and ‘manipulated media’ labels on hundreds of other tweets.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi called Trump’s planned order “outrageous” and a “distraction” from the coronavirus crisis.

Under the order, the Commerce Department has 60 days to petition the FCC to adopt new rules and then the agency will review the petition. It could take anywhere from 12 to 24 months for the FCC to propose and adopt final rules.

Federal spending on online advertising will also be reviewed by U.S. government agencies to ensure there are no speech restrictions by a company.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose, David Shepardson, Alexandra Alper and Jeff Mason in Washington, Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in Birmingham, England; Susan Cornwell and Susan Heavey in Washington; Karen Freifeld in New York; and Katie Paul in San Francisco; Edited by Nick Zieminski and Grant McCool)

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  • May 31, 2020 at 6:40 pm
    Jon says:
    LOL weren't you just whining a few posts off about my off topic posts but now you want to argue Russia? The evidence is out there, try somewhere other than your tin foil hat r... read more
  • May 31, 2020 at 6:39 pm
    Jon says:
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    Jon says:
    Lol please try to deny that thug is a racist term dummy. And you're totally beyond delusional about the black vote LOL do you even know any black people? Nevermind, I know you... read more
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