The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

White House distances itself from reports that Trump could target Facebook, Google and Twitter with a new executive order

In an Aug. 28 tweet, President Trump accused Google of “suppressing voices of Conservatives.” In response, the search engine said its searches aren’t biased. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

The White House sought to dis­tance it­self Sat­ur­day from re­ports that President Trump is con­sid­er­ing an ex­ec­u­tive ord­er that would sub­ject tech giants like Facebook, Goo­gle and Twitter to federal in­ves­ti­gat­ions into al­leged po­lit­i­cal bias.

For weeks, top tech com­panies have been on edge, fear­ing that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion could seek to regu­late the in­dus­try in re­sponse to the president’s tweets at­tack­ing so­cial media sites for si­len­cing con­ser­va­tives online. Their worst sus­pi­cions seemed to come true Fri­day night, with the e­mer­gence of a draft ex­ec­u­tive ord­er that called for near­ly every federal a­gen­cy to study how com­panies like Facebook police their plat­forms and re­fer in­stan­ces of “bias” to the Justice Department for further study.

But three White House aides soon in­sist­ed they didn’t write the draft ord­er, didn’t know where it came from and gen­er­al­ly found it to be un­work­able pol­icy. One seni­or White House of­fi­cial con­firmed the docu­ment had been float­ing around the White House but had not gone through the for­mal proc­ess, which is con­trolled by the staff sec­re­tar­y.

Asked a­bout the docu­ment, Lind­say Walters, the dep­u­ty White House press sec­re­tar­y, said of the dig­i­tal-age ‘who­dun­it’ on Sat­ur­day: “Al­though the White House is con­cerned a­bout the con­duct of online plat­forms and their im­pact on soci­ety, this docu­ment is not the re­sult of an of­fi­cial White House policymaking proc­ess.”

For months, com­panies like Facebook, Goo­gle and Twitter have grap­pled with al­le­ga­tions of anti-con­ser­va­tive bias from the coun­try’s top Re­pub­lic­ans. In tweets, Trump re­peat­ed­ly has charged with­out evi­dence that tech com­panies de­lib­er­ate­ly si­lence right-lean­ing view­ers and even rig search re­sults to show neg­a­tive stor­ies a­bout con­ser­va­tives or hide their ac­counts altogether. He has fre­quent­ly told al­lies that bias against con­ser­va­tives is a cen­tral issue to his sup­port­ers, and his cam­paign has used the al­le­ga­tions as fod­der for fundraising in re­cent weeks.

On Capitol Hill, mean­while, top Re­pub­lic­ans have mount­ed their own cam­paign against Sil­i­con Valley, even for­cing Twitter CEO Jack Dor­sey to tes­ti­fy at a re­cent hear­ing a­bout ac­cu­sa­tions of cen­sor­ship. GOP lead­ers have threat­ened to force Goo­gle’s lead­ing exec­utives to do the same.

Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey appeared before lawmakers on Sept. 5 and discussed foreign interference, political bias and drug sales. (Video: Patrick Martin/The Washington Post)

But the po­lit­i­cal attacks morphed into a real threat of sting­ing reg­u­la­tion earli­er this month, when the Justice Department an­nounced it would gath­er state at­tor­neys gen­er­al on Tuesday to dis­cuss the tech in­dus­try, its fil­ter­ing prac­tices online and the im­pli­ca­tions for an­ti­trust. For Facebook, Goo­gle, Twitter and their peers, the ses­sion seemed poised to open the door for the federal and state gov­ern­ments to coordinate and be­gin fresh in­ves­ti­gat­ions of their busi­ness prac­tices.

All month, those com­panies' lobby­ists also had been buzz­ing a­bout a po­ten­tial White House ex­ec­u­tive ord­er that aimed “to pro­tect com­pe­ti­tion and small busi­nes­ses from bias in online plat­forms,” ac­cord­ing to a copy of the docu­ment ob­tained by The Washington Post. If signed by the president, it would task federal ag­en­cies — in­clud­ing the in­de­pend­ent Justice Department — to “in­ves­ti­gate and/or pros­ecute” com­panies that use their “mar­ket pow­er in a way that harms con­sum­ers.” The draft docu­ment ul­ti­mate­ly leaked Fri­day, pub­lished by Bloom­berg News, to whom a White House of­fi­cial said it was un­der con­sid­er­a­tion.

Aides at the White House said all week that the National Economic Council — which would have been tasked un­der the draft ord­er to help ag­en­cies probe online bias — didn’t write it and didn’t know where it came from. Nor did the White House’s top tech pol­icy hub, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, two White House sources said. Trump has of­ten or­dered aides to write ex­ec­u­tive or­ders that were later deemed un­work­able, but another seni­or White House of­fi­cial said he had no knowl­edge of this one.

“It would be en­tire­ly in­sane,” said one lawyer with knowl­edge of the docu­ment, who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

The docu­ment has float­ed to tech com­panies such as Facebook and law­yers at white-shoe firms around Washington. In fact, the first that many at OSTP had even heard of an ex­ec­u­tive ord­er came from an email sent by an un­like­ly source: Yelp, the re­views site. The com­pany long has at­tacked Goo­gle for abus­ing its mar­ket pow­er, al­be­it by lim­it­ing the reach of some of its com­peti­tors in search re­sults and not po­lit­i­cal bias. Still, Lu­ther Lowe, seni­or vice president for pol­icy at Yelp, con­tacted White House aides in Sep­tem­ber with the draft ex­ec­u­tive ord­er, ac­cord­ing to two White House aides and a copy of an email shared with The Post.

Reached this week­end, Lowe did not ad­dress whether he wrote or com­mis­sioned the ex­ec­u­tive ord­er. “Far from rid­ing the cur­rent tech back­lash, Yelp has been con­sis­tent­ly criti­cal of Goo­gle for ac­tu­al bias in search re­sults — in local search, for their own com­pe­ti­tive benefit,” he said in a state­ment. “We believe this anti-com­pe­ti­tive con­duct — bias­ing their re­sults in fa­vor of their own house prop­er­ties — to be a vi­o­la­tion of US an­ti­trust law and we have been urging both po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Congress, the Administration and regu­la­tors to in­ves­ti­gate and pros­ecute this il­legal bias.”