Speed Reads

Law of unintended consequences

Trump's social media executive order could force social media to censor Trump

There are a lot of legal, ethical, political, and constitutional questions about the executive order President Trump signed Thursday purporting to "defend free speech" by regulating social media companies. But there's also a practical one: Is Trump shooting himself in the foot?

Trump's executive order targets Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, a foundational internet law that shields websites like social media companies from liability for most things users post to their sites. If Trump is successful, Twitter, Google, and Facebook "could face legal jeopardy if they allowed false and defamatory posts," Peter Baker and Daisuke Wakabayashi explain at The New York Times. "Without a liability shield, they presumably would have to be more aggressive about policing messages that press the boundaries — like the president's."

"Ironically, Donald Trump is a big beneficiary of Section 230," said Kate Ruane at the American Civil Liberties Union. "If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump's lies, defamation, and threats."

Giving Twitter a legal imperative to, say, remove posts in which Trump falsely accuses a prominent critic of murder isn't Trump's desired outcome, Baker and Wakabayashi note. "What he wants is the freedom to post anything he likes without the companies applying any judgment to his messages, as Twitter did this week when it began appending 'get the facts' warnings to some of his false posts on voter fraud." But as with the Communications Decency Act, Trump can't unilaterally nullify the law of unintended consequences.

Perhaps luckily for Trump, his executive order probably has no legal teeth and, if challenged in court, will almost certainly be struck down. "Donald Trump's order is plainly illegal," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the 1996 law's authors. You can learn more about Section 230, including why it has critics on the left and right — for different reasons — in this Washington Post explainer.

Trump's effort to quashing Section 230 by executive fiat immediately "touched off widespread opposition, uniting Democratic lawmakers, digital experts, longtime conservative-leaning advocacy groups, and a bevy of free speech activists," the Post reports.

"Social media can be frustrating," said Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic member of the Federal Communications Commission, one of the independent agencies Trump directed to act. "But an executive order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the president's speech police is not the answer."