Draft Executive Order Gives FCC, FTC Sway Over Internet

According to sources, the White House drafted an executive order that would give the Federal Communications Commission the power to determine how Facebook, Twitter and other large tech companies curate their websites. The FCC would be tasked with developing regulations on how (and when) the law protects social media platforms when they remove or suppress content, and also charges the Federal Trade Commission with taking the new regulations into account when investigating or suing these companies.

CNN, which acquired a summary of the draft order, notes that “if put into effect, [it] would reflect a significant escalation by President Trump in his frequent attacks against social media companies over an alleged but unproven systemic bias against conservatives by technology platforms.”

The summary draft order, currently titled “Protecting Americans from Online Censorship,” claims the White House has received “more than 15,000 anecdotal complaints of social media platforms censoring American political discourse.” The White House debuted a website in May to allow consumers to post complaints and said it will offer to share the results with the FTC.

A Trump spokesperson referred CNN to “a recent meeting with right-wing social media activists,” during which Trump pledged to “explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect free speech.” The summary also states that “the FTC will also be asked to open a public complaint docket … and to work with the FCC to develop a report investigating how tech companies curate their platforms and whether they do so in neutral ways.”

Companies that fall under the new regulations would be those “whose monthly user base accounts for one-eighth of the U.S. population,” and include but are not limited to Facebook, Google, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and Snapchat.

The results of this draft proposal would be “to significantly narrow the protections afforded to companies under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a part of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.” That provision holds Internet companies not liable for most of the content that their users or other third parties post on their platforms. When social media platforms take down objectionable content, they also “qualify for broad legal immunity” when they are considered to have acted “in good faith.”

The White House’s order would ask the FCC to “restrict the government’s view of the good-faith provision … to find that social media sites do not qualify for the good-faith immunity if they remove or suppress content without notifying the user who posted the material, or if the decision is proven to be evidence of anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive practices.”

Among the critics of the draft executive order, libertarian-leaning think tank TechFreedom president Berin Szoka said, “it makes no sense to involve the FCC here … they have rule-making authority, but no jurisdiction — they can’t possibly want to be involved. It would be an impossible position.”

The FTC and FCC both declined to comment. Others say that the White House “seemed to be trying to have it both ways — excoriating tech companies for allegedly censoring conservative speech …while castigating them for failing to block enough violent or hateful content.”