The White House has been plotting its assault on Internet platforms for some time now, and the directive marks the first shot formally fired. It comes as a response to Twitter applying a fact-checking label to tweets from the commander in chief that falsely suggested that vote-by-mail is systemically fraudulent. Twitter early Friday rallied rather than retreating, slapping a warning on a presidential tweet for glorifying violence. The tweet from the president, and then from the official White House account, called protesters in Minneapolis “THUGS” and declared that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The order signed on Thursday is a grab-bag of grievances with remedies that are at best illogical and at worst illegal. Certainly the declaration is a terrible abuse of authority. The White House wants federal regulators to write new rules “clarifying” a landmark law regarding Internet speech, and to discipline companies that allegedly display political bias or otherwise engage in censorship. The Justice Department is also tasked with reviewing agencies’ advertising spending to yank dollars away from sites deemed “problematic.” Finally, the proclamation tells the attorney general to develop a proposal for legislation to promote the order’s policy objectives.
This last instruction suggests a glimmer of understanding that the preceding commands run afoul of the law. The order is a backward interpretation of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which wasn’t written to prevent platforms from exercising an editorial role. Just the opposite: Section 230 was written to allow platforms to exercise such a role without exposing themselves to legal liability for posts by third parties. Mr. Trump acts as if he seeks an interpretation of the rule when actually he seeks an invalidation. That’s not his role, but Congress’s — and so far Congress has largely chosen to leave Section 230 alone.
The order also does little to advance the president’s own objectives. Threatening platforms with loss of their immunity for displaying political bias may scare them away from policing conservatives who break their rules, but only until they lose their immunity. After that, platforms will have an incentive to move in the other direction, ramping up takedowns for fear of hosting something illegal on their sites. Admittedly, Twitter has an enforcement problem today that lets people on the right and left alike get away with rule-breaking; that allows both sides to interpret policing failures as signs of prejudice against them. But this week’s order won’t resolve that, and it isn’t really trying to.
All this confusion and contradiction obscures the president’s true objective: to exploit the powers of his office to bully private companies out of holding him to any standard but his own. The fact-checks and warning labels that have so enraged Mr. Trump this week aren’t restricting his speech. They are speech; people remain free to read Mr. Trump’s tweets, even the most offensive ones. All terms of service are a matter of platforms engaging in exactly the sort of unimpeded expression the Constitution enshrines.
Thursday’s order begins by asserting that “free speech is the bedrock of American democracy,” a “sacred right.” The president has that correct. He just won’t admit he’s the one impinging on it.