Donald Trump said he had ordered a wide-ranging review of the law that underpins how social media companies operate, in a move which threatens to undermine legal protections they have enjoyed for decades.
The US president on Thursday signed an order he said instructed his officials to re-examine the 1996 law that granted social media companies immunity from being sued for content which appeared on their platforms, or for removing content. The law — section 230 of the Communications Decency Act — has been dubbed the “26 words that created the internet”.
The president’s review — one of several moves designed to check what his supporters say is anticonservative bias shown by social media companies — comes after a bitter row with Twitter, which placed “fact check notices” against two of his tweets earlier this week.
“Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they’re a neutral platform, which they’re not,” Mr Trump said on Thursday.
“My executive order calls for new regulations under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to make it that social media companies that engage in censoring or any political conduct will not be able to keep their liability shield. That’s a big deal.”
Even before Mr Trump signed the order, technology groups accused the him of exceeding his authority, and said they were considering taking his administration to court. And a Democratic commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, the agency Mr Trump wants to review the law, said the president was undermining free speech.
Under the president’s order, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration would ask the FCC, an independent government agency, to “clarify” parts of section 230 in a way that would make it harder in particular for Twitter and others to remove content.
“We’re here today to defend free speech from one of the greatest dangers,” Mr Trump said, adding that large social media companies had “unchecked power” to censor and restrict human interaction.
The president also said he would seek legislative changes.
Twitter declined to comment.
Responding to a widely leaked draft of the executive order, Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic commissioner at the FCC, said in advance: “This does not work. Social media can be frustrating. But an executive order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the president’s speech police is not the answer.”
She added: “It’s time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment. History won’t be kind to silence.”
On Tuesday Twitter added labels to tweets from Mr Trump claiming that postal ballots were “fraudulent” and their use would lead to a “rigged election”, prompting a rapidly escalating war of words between the president and Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, weighed in against Mr Dorsey, telling the Fox News channel that private technology companies “shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online”. Facebook has refused to take down an identical post by Mr Trump on its platform to the one that Twitter fact checked.