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Donald Trump Executive Order Against Twitter and Facebook: What is Section 230 and How Does it Impact the Tech Giants

Jun 1, 2020 7:09 AM 4 min read
Editorial

We dig into Section 230. What’s the controversy surrounding it? How scrapping or weakening it affects several tech giants?

US President Donald Trump signed an executive order yesterday - seeking to limit the broad legal protection granted by US federal law to social media platforms, namely Section 230 (of the 1996 Communications Decency Act).

Trump also went to the extent of saying that if his lawyers could find a way to legally shut down Twitter, “I would do it.”

Now isn’t that a nice way to illustrate his love-hate relationship with the microblogging platform!?

Twitter greatly helped Trump during the 2016 Presidential election. However, over the years Trump seems to have taken things to the next level, in a way integrating Twitter within the very fabric of his administration.

Twitter is his preferred weapon, his “digital howitzer”, as The New York Times puts it. After Turkey invaded northern Syria last year, the President of the United States (POTUS) crafted his response not only in White House meetings but also in a series of contradictory tweets.

Trump also took to Twitter to announce increased tariffs on $300bn worth of Chinese goods - deepening tensions between the two countries. In March last year, he cast aside more than 50 years of US policy towards Israel and Syria, tweeting his recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in the Golan Heights.

But things seem to have taken a rather downhill turn in recent days.

Recap

The move comes after Twitter on Tuesday applied a fact-checking notice to two tweets by the POTUS about the potential for fraud when it comes to mail-in ballots. Twitter added a small label asking readers to “Get the facts about mail-in ballots”, with a link to a curated fact-check page, filled with further links and summaries of news articles debunking the assertion.

 

Donald Trump Tweet

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act says:

 

"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."

 

Thereby, the law provides an immunity of sorts to social media companies like Facebook and Twitter against being sued over the content on their site. This allows them to operate and flourish without needing to moderate content.

“Section 230 set the legal framework for the internet that we know today that relies heavily on user content rather than content that companies create,” says Jeff Kossett, a cybersecurity law professor at the US Naval Academy and one of the foremost experts on Section 230.

It provides a broad shield to tech companies, protecting them from lawsuits over content generated by users on their sites, although there are exceptions for copyright violations, sex work-related material and violations of federal criminal law. It gives Twitter and Facebook the right to moderate content but does not give them the responsibility to do so.

Not surprising then that tech giants pushed back against the order in unison, and the precedent it can set globally. Twitter described the order as “a reactionary and politicised approach to a landmark law.”

Facebook criticised the move by saying that repealing or limiting 230 would “restrict more speech online, not less” and “would penalise companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”

Google also voiced its dissent, saying “Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom.” 

 

Donald Trump signs executive order against Twitter and Facebook

 

A Double-Edged Sword

Critics argue that Section 230 gives social media giants - which 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 - a free pass on things like hate speech and content that supports terror organisations. 

On the flipside, others contend 230 aids tech companies’ ability to censor speech they don’t agree with. There’s also a real possibility that making tech companies more liable for user content would have a chilling effect on free speech online.

“They get it from both sides: Powerful voices demand that they take down more speech, and other powerful voices demand that they take down less,” said Daphne Keller, a Former Associate General Counsel at Google.

It reflects an almost unsolvable bind for the tech companies given their size and influence, she added.

What Next?

The move is expected to draw immediate court challenges and it will be a long process before the talk turns into real action, big or otherwise.

Independent government agencies will have to review federal law, promulgate new regulations, vote on them and then - in all likelihood - defend them in court.

Given the soon-approaching November presidential election, it is understandable that Trump is also pushing for new congressional legislation.

However, the timing and Trump’s reliance on Twitter to get his message out to the public and garner support, without filtering from the mainstream media, is quite telling.

Is Trump’s push back against Twitter, then, a lopsided attempt to salvage his favourite communication tool? Trump and his many ways...

FIN.

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