Dems: Trump Social Media Order Endangers Democracy

Comments continued to pour in Thursday (May 28) after President Donald Trump signed an executive order that would get the federal government involved in regulating social media posts. The reviews were generally not positive.  

The Democratic leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC, was dismayed by the President's action, saying the President presented a clear and present danger to democracy. 

Related: White House Signals Order is About Conservative Speech Bias

“With this Executive Order, the President is lashing out to punish social media platforms that are seeking to stop the dissemination of misinformation," said Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee Chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) "His actions pose a clear and present threat to our democracy, far beyond his usual rantings.  

"Online platforms should enforce their codes of conduct to combat disinformation, even when it is spread by right wing extremists and the President himself, but the President has made clear he wants the internet to cower in fear. This retribution is a perfect example of how authoritarian governments, like the Chinese, silence free speech, and the result will be the continued growth of misinformation, hate speech and tribalism online and in our communities.  

“We will be watching the FTC and FCC, both independent agencies created by Congress, as well as social media platforms to ensure they are acting in the American people’s best interest and not simply appeasing a self-aggrandizing bully," they said.  

For his part, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said that the FCC would seriously review any petition by the Commerce Department for action on social media regulation. 

"Tech companies make it possible for us all to stay connected, doctors to tend patients remotely, policymakers to communicate with constituents, and students and employees to learn and work from home," said Jason Oxman, president of tech group ITI. "These tools thrive with a diversity of viewpoints and are more important than ever.

"Today's executive order expresses that the First Amendment is the bedrock of American democracy, while at the same time threatening to undermine it by endorsing government censorship of speech. The ability of U.S. citizens to post content online, and of companies to take good faith efforts and offer tools to promote the safe use of that content, is protected by the Constitution and by existing law." 

"We oppose today's unconstitutional, ill-considered executive order," said Consumer Technology Association President Gary Shapiro. "The free speech protections in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act are the legal underpinning of our vibrant U.S. online economy and our nation's global digital leadership. America's internet companies lead the world and it is incredible that our own political leaders would seek to censor them for political purposes. These same politicians extensively advertise on them and just a few minutes online will reveal these platforms contain a multitude of political views. Section 230 protects these companies as well as any start-up website which hosts others' speech - from community bulletin boards to social media sites to the Fox News comments section. 

"This executive order also conflicts with existing law. The President does not have the legal authority to add new laws for the FCC to follow. That is the role of Congress with legislation - sent to the President. The President is also trying to create new law by declaring private companies are the equivalent of 'public forums' for speech purposes. In the American system, private companies - not government - decide the 'rules of the road' for running their platforms, including what speech they host. 

"Our nation's pro-free speech, low-touch regulation philosophy is part of what makes American innovators the most successful in the world. Companies can innovate without fear of being sued repeatedly over third-party content. Likewise, consumers have the power of choice - they can decide which platforms to use or even start their own.  

"Today's announcement will burden innovators, reduce our international competitiveness and promote wasteful trial lawyer lawsuits. While we support legitimate efforts to protect and enhance free speech, this executive order is not the answer."

“This executive order amounts to an unconstitutional effort to intimidate online platforms into censoring free expression and promoting only the administration’s views," said Sharon Bradford Franklin, policy director at New America’s Open Technology Institute. "Section 230 is a law enacted by Congress, and the president cannot amend a statute by issuing an executive order.  

“While the public must hold tech companies accountable for their decisions regarding what content to allow on their platforms, the government cannot dictate how companies make these decisions," Franklin said. "The order outlines a series of tactics designed to impose the weight of government authority to direct what content may appear online. Such a campaign to control what speech may appear online violates the First Amendment and seriously undermines the free expression interests that it protects." 

“Claims of systemic bias by social media companies are a fiction intended to pressure companies into making content moderation decisions more favorable to the Administration," said CCIA President Matt Schruers. "Setting regulators upon the private sector to achieve that end is a grave misuse of government resources in a time of national crisis.

“In light of threats including the ongoing pandemic, policymakers have asked digital services to do more to address misinformation online and companies have responded, as Twitter did with one of the President’s tweets this week. Companies rely upon Section 230 to take these steps. Today’s effort to unilaterally reinterpret that law by Executive Order undermines efforts to remove misinformation during a public health crisis, and is not only unlawful, but irresponsible.”

One person celebrating was Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. "President Trump’s Executive Order on Online Censorship is welcome news!," he tweeted. "I look forward to receiving the Administration’s petition for rulemaking and taking action."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.