On Thursday, May 28th, 2020, President Trump signed the Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship. Without getting too much into the weeds of legalese, the order basically seeks to prevent social media giants from censoring their users. Twitter, Facebook, and Google have tremendous power in relation to communication. Their platforms are arguably more powerful than television and newspapers combined.
Twitter recently flexed its tremendous power by adding a disclaimer of sorts to the bottom of two of Donald Trump’s tweets. The President wrote a statement about the issues with mail-in ballots and how they are an easy pathway to fraud. Twitter “fact-checked” those tweets, then gave their own two cents on the “facts” behind mail-in ballots. Twitter has not done this with any other person on their “platform.”
Trump seeks to eliminate obvious anti-conservative bias and abuse coming from Twitter and other social media platforms.
What Is Section 203 All About?
The key to any movement happening with Trump’s E.O. is Section 203 of the Communication Decency Act. The act was drafted in 1996 and signed into law in 1997. Ironically enough, the purpose of the CDA was to restrict freedom of speech on the internet. The spirit of the act was good. And that was to impede the proliferation of pornography. Now, the section drafted to limit the act’s scope has become of greater importance than the act itself.
Section 203 states that websites that allow user-generated content shall not be liable for what those users upload. These sorts of websites are labeled as “platforms.” When a person uploads a copyrighted image or video to Twitter, if anyone is held liable then it will be the person who uploaded the thing that is in conflict. Twitter won’t be held liable because they have protection as a platform. They operate as sort-of an online bulletin board. They do not produce content themselves. Publishers do. Publishers are liable for things that they publish on their websites.
A prime example of a website being punished as a publisher without platform protection is Gawker. They were sued out of existence by Hollywood Hulk Hogan for publishing his sex tape against his wishes. If Gawker was a platform like Twitter, Facebook, etc., then they could not be sued. Because third-party
Conservatives who have been censored on social media argue that Section 203 is being used as a weapon against them. They also say it’s improper for Twitter and Facebook to label themselves as platforms if they curate and manipulate user-generated content. This includes deleting posts, removing conservatives from the platform completely, and the most recent thing of adding text to Trump’s tweets for “context” purposes. The line between platform and publisher is blurred in that context.
If Twitter and other websites with user-generated content lose their “platform” status, then they would be open to lawsuits the same as a “publisher” website would.
Even In Defeat There May Be Victory
There are a couple of problems with Trump’s Executive Order. First of all, legal experts claim, and probably correctly so, that law cannot be changed via Executive Order. Law can only be further explained and or enforced through executive order. Only the Legislative Branch (Congress) can create law. Or, at least that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Then there’s the issue of Twitter and other websites fighting the decision in court. If the defense argues properly, then the outcome could benefit conservatives even if Trump loses. The lawsuit could get defeated not just on the grounds of E.O.s not able to create law, but also on the grounds of private companies having the freedom of speech. Which includes removing content, editing content, and more. If that is the ruling, then that same ruling must apply to any private business. Not just online websites. Discrimination lawsuits could go the way of the Dodo bird. No more forced gay-wedding-cake-baking.
The only true solution to online censorship of conservatives is competition. Twitter alternatives like Gab and Parler exist, but don’t get much traction. They are seen as sort-of an exile domain. Organic growth of alternative social media platforms is the only true solution. Trump’s Executive Order, while well-meaning, may simply fall short.