May 28, 2020 - Technology

Tech, business, civil rights groups slam Trump's social media order

President Donald Trump holds up a newspaper with a photo of a Twitter executive as he discusses a social media executive order in the Oval Office.

Photo: Doug Mills via Getty Images

Condemnations from a wide range of groups and figures followed President Trump's executive order aiming to curtail protections for social media companies, with only a few of the president's staunchest allies voicing support.

The big picture: There's no shortage of critics of Big Tech in general and social media in particular, but few entities believe the president should — or even legally can — regulate the policies of a private company.

What we're hearing: Those criticizing the president's order included civil rights groups; business and tech trade associations; and advocacy groups, think tanks and politicians from across the political spectrum. They tended to raise a variety of issues, including:

  • The First Amendment's bar on the government regulating private speech such as the fact-check label Twitter added to clarify a false claim Trump recently tweeted.
  • The president's lack of authority to overrule an act of Congress, in this case by blunting Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the longstanding immunity shield Trump is asking federal regulators to reinterpret.
  • The fact that the Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission are independent agencies of the federal government not meant to take direction from the White House.
  • The threat posed by misinformation generally, and election interference specifically; Twitter added the fact-check label, which infuriated Trump and immediately preceded the executive order, to address election-related misinformation from the president.
  • The possibility that the order is in fact an attempt to distract from the president's coronavirus response.

Yes, but: There were a few Republicans who spoke up in favor of the order, including FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr and Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.).

What they're saying:

Politicans and officials:

  • Sen. Marsha Blackburn: "Social media has a history of subjectively manipulating algorithms to censor free speech. ... It takes a leader like President Donald Trump to bring much needed action on Big Tech abuses."
  • U.S. Reps Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Mike Doyle (D-Penn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.): "We will be watching the FTC and FCC, both independent agencies created by Congress, as well as social media platforms to ensure they are acting in the American people’s best interest and not simply appeasing a self-aggrandizing bully."
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.): "As the co-author of Section 230, let me make this clear: there is nothing in the law about political neutrality. It does not say companies like Twitter are forced to carry misinformation about voting, especially from the president."
  • FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel: "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.  It’s time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment.  History won’t be kind to silence.”
  • FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr: "I welcome today's executive order and its call for guidance on the scope of the unique and conditional set of legal privileges that Congress conferred on social media companies but no other set of speakers in Section 230."
  • A spokesperson for the FTC: "The FTC is committed to robust enforcement of consumer protection and competition laws, including with respect to social media platforms, and consistent with our jurisdictional authority and constitutional limitations."


  • Twitter: "This EO is a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law. #Section230 protects American innovation and freedom of expression, and it’s underpinned by democratic values. Attempts to unilaterally erode it threaten the future of online speech and Internet freedoms."
  • Google: "Our platforms have empowered a wide range of people and organizations from across the political spectrum, giving them a voice and new ways to reach their audiences. Undermining Section 230 in this way would hurt America’s economy and its global leadership on internet freedom."
  • Facebook: "We believe in protecting freedom of expression on our services, while protecting our community from harmful content including content designed to stop voters from exercising their right to vote."

Nonprofits and trade groups:

  • Ashkhen Kazaryan, director of civil liberties at TechFreedom: "This is pure political theatre — and an affront to the Constitution. The Order is a hodgepodge of outdated and inapplicable precedents combined with flagrant misinterpretations of both the First Amendment and Section 230."
  • Americans for Prosperity senior tech policy analyst Billy Easley: “This executive order misreads the law and mistakes the role of government. Censorship comes from government trying to police speech — not private companies.... If lawmakers are truly concerned with ideological bias limiting free expression online, they should recognize that Section 230 is the very tool that enables companies to counter that trend.”
  • Justin Brookman, director of consumer privacy and technology policy, for Consumer Reports: “This executive order is a half-baked effort that will have few legal effects, but it could chill free expression online and threaten the open internet. A fact check by Twitter is an editorial decision protected by the First Amendment.
  • Software & Information Industry Association CEO Jeff Joseph: “The freedom to express one’s views without government interference is not only the bedrock principle of the First Amendment, but the goose that laid America’s technology golden egg. Our free marketplace of ideas created a world-leading internet industry. Section 230 is part and parcel of that success."
  • CCIA President Matt Schruers: “Claims of systemic bias by social media companies are a fiction intended to pressure companies into making content moderation decisions more favorable to the Administration.  Setting regulators upon the private sector to achieve that end is a grave misuse of government resources in a time of national crisis.” 
  • U.S. Chamber of Commerce: "We believe that free speech and the right to engage in commerce are foundational to the American free enterprise system. Regardless of the circumstances that led up to this, this is not how public policy is made in the United States. An executive order cannot be properly used to change federal law."
  • Rachel Bovard, senior adviser for the Internet Accountability Project: "The social media platforms, regardless of whether or not they are bound by the First Amendment, should be held accountable to their end users. There are many lawmakers looking to recalibrate the law in order to foster the accountability and transparency that achieves that goal. President Trump’s Executive Order seeks those same ends."
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