The big picture: The Trump administration has on numerous occasions alleged that tech companies and social media platforms are censoring posts made by conservative users. The administration may be about to take its first actions to combat this perceived bias, through a new executive order that would put the FCC in charge of overseeing how Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms moderate user generated content.
Reports are emerging of a new executive order from the White House, named ‘Protecting Americans from Online Censorship’, that aims to curb the alleged anti-conservative bias social media companies have when it comes to moderating their platforms.
According to Politico, drafts of the proposed order have been circulated internally at the White House. Sources say the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will be required to develop new regulations, as well as paring back some existing protections that social media companies use to avoid liability for content on their platforms.
Specifically, the Trump administration is reportedly going after Section 230 of the Communications and Decency Act (part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996). Section 230 allows internet companies to qualify for legal immunity when taking down objectionable content as long as they are acting ‘in good faith.’
The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls this "one of the most valuable tools for protecting freedom of expression and innovation on the Internet":
Section 230 says 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" (47 U.S.C. § 230). In other words, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are protected against a range of laws that might otherwise be used to hold them legally responsible for what others say and do.
The proposed executive order reportedly rolls-back this protection in cases where social platforms remove content without notifying the person who posted it, or if the content’s removal is deemed anti-competitive or unfair.
If this all sounds rather vague and woolly, it’s because it is. There has always been a complex interplay between the United States’ commitment to free speech versus platforms’ own policies on hate speech and objectionable content. It’s a tricky space to navigate. Legislation is generally more suited to black-and-white issues, when this is decidedly grey.
Currently the executive order has not been finalized or officially announced, and so is subject to revisions or even fundamental changes in approach. But as things currently stand, the FCC is potentially about to become a much bigger player in the hotly contested arena of political speech protections.