Break the Internet to Suppress the Vote

Break the Internet to Suppress the Vote

The internet, and Twitter in particular, is central to President Donald Trump’s power. His tweets move everything from Pentagon policy on Syria and transgender service to how Republican lawmakers vote on surveillance law. Their frequent falsity is beside the point. It’s the influence that matters. 

Now Trump is trying to push a lasting structural change upon the internet, one that internet-freedom advocates fear will entrench a disincentive for any social media company to block disinformation on their platform. And it comes after Twitter, an open sewer for disinformation, took a very meager step to stop Trump from suppressing the vote in November.

In signing an executive order on Thursday, Trump called for “new regulations” with respect to the provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act permitting internet companies to remove or restrict content they host “that the provider or user considers to be obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” The provision, Section 230, establishes that social-media and other internet content hosts are platforms, not publishers, and therefore not legally liable for what users say, do, or experience online.

Trump’s proposal declared that “a provider should properly lose the limited liability shield” of Section 230 if it’s found to “silence viewpoints that they dislike.” As a means for determining that, it called for “all executive departments and agencies” to review how they were applying the provision and for a rule-making petition to be filed to the Federal Communications Commission within 60 days. Trump’s order also instructed loyalist Attorney General Bill Barr to propose legislation “useful to promote the policy objectives of this order” and advised heads of various government agencies to review the advertising dollars that they were spending on social media platforms. 

Collectively, the order suggests social media companies may face penalties—real or potential—for attempting to police misinformation on their platforms. Either, according to longtime observers, is likely to be enough to prompt those companies to revert to their resting state: opening the sluice-gate of misinformation.

For the president’s critics, it all amounts to a jarring sequence: To stay in power, Trump has taken a step toward erasing the already blurred line between what is and isn’t true online. 

“Donald Trump is so committed to preventing Americans from voting that he spent weeks lying about vote by mail, and now he is trying to twist Section 230 and the First Amendment to force Twitter to spread these lies,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), the provision’s co-author. 

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