Donald Trump had already warned, through his Twitter account, that he would “regulate social networks, or close them down,” rather than “allow conservative voices to continue to be silenced. A controversial statement that came just hours after Twitter applied its mislabeling system to two of the president’s tweets.
Although many might interpret this as a sudden outburst at a Twitter review, the White House did take action and just one day later, Trump issued a signed executive order making his tweet threat a legal norm.
But what is the basis for, and what are the legal effects of, the executive order signed by Trump? Well, it all revolves around Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a paragraph that Jeff Kosseff (a lawyer at the U.S. Naval Academy) has metaphorically called “the 26 words that founded the Internet.
Basically what this clause avoids is that Internet platforms can be held legally responsible (and therefore liable) for any and all comments and materials posted on them by users. Pray that:
“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”.
Trump is now seeking to explore the limits of the 1996 Act, by suggesting that recourse to “editing” or censorship of content could lead to a platform no longer being considered (in the eyes of the Act) as a social network but as a medium, which would entail losing the protection afforded by Section 230.
Trump’s message is simple: if a network chooses to delete certain messages and not others, it will be because those it leaves intact have its approval, so it will have to answer for them; and if it does not want to answer legally for any message, it should give up editing or deleting any.
However, the executive order will not translate in the short term into changes in the functioning of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks: it will be necessary for the Federal Communications Commission to first pronounce on the White House’s request to clarify whether it is feasible to condition the application of Section 230.
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 29, 2020