Funding Bill Would Block Parts of Trump Sec. 230 Executive Order

Capitol Hill
(Image credit: Architect of the Capitol)

A bill that would fund the FCC and Federal Trade Commission includes language that would limit the President's effort to regulate social media, as well as provide billions to help better identify and close the digital divide, and use secure technology to do so.

Related: Trump Threatens to Shut Down Social Media 

A report on the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations bill includes a section on what the funds cannot be spent on, including this one deep into the summary of the bill: 

"Section 637. The Committee includes a new provision prohibiting the Federal Trade Commission or Federal Communications Commission from taking certain actions related to Executive Order 13925 of May 28, 2020 (85 Fed. Reg. 34079). 

That was President Trump's order on "preventing online censorship," which included trying to weaken or eliminate the Sec. 230 exemption from civil liability social media sites get for their moderation of third party content, an exemption that protects them from lawsuits over content they take down or label, or content they choose to leave up.  

"When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power," the executive order said. 

The President wants to enlist the FCC and FTC in clarifying the scope of Sec. 230 immunity, which means limiting it.  

"[T]he immunity should not extend beyond its text and purpose to provide protection for those who purport to provide users a forum for free and open speech, but in reality use their power over a vital means of communication to engage in deceptive or pretextual actions stifling free and open debate by censoring certain viewpoints," the executive order said. 

Related: White House Says Social Media Order is About Anti-Conservative Bias

The House report does not specify what parts of the executive order the bill would block, but the order asks the FTC to regulate social media sites through its unfair and deceptive acts authority if it concludes that those sites "restrict speech in ways that do not align with those entities' public representations about those practices." 

The President also wants the FTC to compile a report of complaints against social media sites--it singles out Twitter--and whether those complaints allege violations of the law that implicate the policy the executive order asserts, which is that: "It is the policy of the United States that large online platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, as the critical means of promoting the free flow of speech and ideas today, should not restrict protected speech." 

The FCC's job, according to the President, is to propose regulations to "clarify" when "the provider of an interactive computer services," by which he appears to mean a website rather than an ISP, restricts access to content in a manner unprotected by Sec. 230. The FCC would also need to decide under what circumstances restricting access to or availability of content would not be a "good faith" action. 

The bill, which includes funding for a number of agencies and programs, also has $67,040,000,000 in "emergency infrastructure investments to respond to the economic collapse related to the coronavirus," most of which ($61,040,000,000) would go to pay for expanding broadband in unserved areas as well as to fund the FCC's broadband mapping effort and for the replacement of insecure network tech through the Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program. 

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.