'The First Amendment is what allows companies to say whatever they want in response,' Democratic congressman says
Donald Trump has signed a controversial executive order that could allow federal officials to go after technology giants like Twitter, Facebook and Google over how those firms monitor and treat content that appears on their websites.
The president, who has uttered thousands of false or misleading statements since taking office, complained as he signed the missive that social media firms have "unchecked power," adding: "Imagine if your phone company edited or silenced your conversations."
The president signed the order two days after Twitter, for the first time, placed a link on some of Mr Trump's tweets that guided users to news articles that fact-checked his statements. Those tweets were about his claims that voting by mail automatically breeds fraud, but he also this week pushed a baseless conspiracy theory that former GOP Congressman-turned-MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a staffer in the early 2000s.
Mr Trump reacted angrily, saying all week that the company was trying to censor him the way he and others on the right say Twitter and its tech cousins have done to scores of conservatives online.
He said on Thursday the company put up the fact check on his post because it has a "viewpoint," calling Twitter's move "political activism."
The true scope and impact of the order are not yet known. And the tech industry is reportedly huddling about potential legal action, calling the executive directive illegal. And the president told reporters he expects a court battle, saying: "'I guess it's going to be challenged in court, but what isn't?'
White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters that the current law erects "shields" behind which "we cannot see" how social media firms make content decisions. The idea behind the order, she said, is to "remove" some and "shed some light" behind those decisions.
The order would set the stage for US federal entities to possibly roll back legal safeguards for tech companies known as Section 230, which prevents tech firms from being held legally responsible for the content they allow on their sites. It also could allow the Trump administration to, via a potential new rule the Federal Communications Commission might craft, alter how agencies view the scope of Section 230.
Tech sector advocates and officials warn the order might have a chilling effect on free speech and set off ripple waves of yet-unknown business ramifications for companies that rely on the Internet to stay afloat.
"This is simply setting the wheels of law enforcement and regulation in motion against a private company for questioning the president," said Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, told The Washington Post.
Congressional Democrats, predictably, are panning the president's move.
"Whatever the credible criticisms of current law, Trump's demagogic meat-ax attack is exactly wrong," tweeted Senate Judiciary Committee member Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut. "He intimidates free speech & imperils responsible reform. It's condemnable."
Ted Lieu of California, a House Judiciary member, tweeted that the order "cannot change the law or the Constitution. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is what allows Trump to post his deranged thoughts on social media."
"The First Amendment is what allows companies to say whatever they want in response," Mr Lieu wrote.
And Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon said Mr Trump and Attorney General William Barr "are obligated to carry out the laws that Congress has passed and the courts have affirmed. Any order to the contrary is illegitimate and must be resisted by any federal official who is true to their oath."
But, as Ms Enany made clear, administrations control how they interpret laws that legislators write. The social media missive would alter how the executive branch treats Section 230.
Mr Trump told reporters he and Mr Barr will push Congress to pass legislation also addressing Section 230. 'We're fed up with it," he said of the alleged censorship of conservatives.
Still, experts are questioning the legality of the order.
"If I'm reading this correctly, the EO claims tech platforms are doing something they're not, in violation of an incorrect interpretation of law, and tasks agencies it can't task to look into the things that aren't being done that wouldn't be wrong," according to Tiffany Li, a Boston University School of Law professor.
Despite his feud with Twitter, Mr Trump made clear he has no plans to simply delete the account from which he regularly fires off over 100 original posts or retweets each day.
"If we had a fair press in this country," he told a reporter, "I'd do it in a heartbeat."