President Trump signed an executive order on Thursday designed to limit the legal protections that shield social media companies from liability for the content users post on their platforms.

What they're saying: "Currently, social media giants like Twitter receive an unprecedented liability shield based on the theory that they are a neutral platform, which they are not," Trump said in the Oval Office. "We are fed up with it. It is unfair, and it's been very unfair."

The state of play: The order comes after the president escalated his attacks against Big Tech in recent days — specifically Twitter, which fact-checked him for the first time this week over an unsubstantiated claim that mail-in voting drives voter fraud.

  • The president and many on the right have long alleged that tech platforms police conservative viewpoints more heavily.
  • The Trump administration convened conservative critics of social media platforms for a social media summit last year focused solely on this topic.
  • But an Axios analysis last year found that stories about the 2020 presidential election that drove the most engagement online often came from right-wing media outlets.

The big picture: The order focuses on a portion of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, which grants broad liability protections to tech platforms from civil suits when it comes to what users post, and would direct the Commerce Department to press the Federal Communications Commission to create new regulations aimed at pulling back that shield.

  • It also asks the Federal Trade Commission to report on acts of political bias collected by the White House. Attorney General Bill Barr said that the administration is preparing legislation as well.
  • The Trump administration has long mulled reining in Section 230, and the Justice Department convened a workshop earlier this year on the topic. Trump said he expects the executive order to draw a lawsuit.

Reality check: Despite this executive order, the president does not have unilateral power to regulate tech companies and social media platforms.

  • This week a federal appeals court, ruling in a case brought by conservative activists against social media companies, affirmed that private websites are not public spaces and social media companies don't have First Amendment obligations.
  • Any truly strong limits to Section 230 would almost certainly require action by Congress.
  • Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) said in a series of tweets Wednesday that he would introduce legislation to strip platforms of their protections if they offer what he described as editorializing.

Worth noting: Section 230 has long had critics on both the right and the left of the political spectrum, who argue that it allows platforms to shirk a societal responsibility to keep harmful and false information from spreading online.

  • Its authors wanted to make it clear that online services could actively moderate their users' content without assuming liability for it, though platforms still must police things like copyright violations.
  • Among Democrats, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff cited deepfake videos last year as a key issue that called Section 230 protections into question, arguing that tech companies need to "exercise a proper standard of care when it comes to a whole variety of fraudulent or illicit content."

Go deeper

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Sen. Kamala Harris, tapped Tuesday as Joe Biden's running mate, is not a "break up Big Tech" crusader. But should Democrats win in November and seek to go after Silicon Valley, she could bring prosecutorial rigor to the case.

Why it matters: The vice president doesn't normally run a president's tech agenda, but can still help set the tone on a wide range of issues for a presidential campaign and administration. Harris' familiarity with the firms in her backyard may give her an outsize role on tech policy.

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Tech giants are going all in on civic engagement efforts ahead of November's election to help protect themselves in case they're charged with letting their platforms be used to suppress the vote.

Why it matters: During the pandemic, there's more confusion about the voting process than ever before. Big tech firms, under scrutiny for failing to stem misinformation around voting, want to have concrete efforts they can point to so they don't get blamed for letting an election be manipulated.

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EU-U.S. privacy rift leaves businesses in disarray

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Some businesses fear growing liability while others worry that small and mid-sized firms will get hurt as the U.S. and Europe begin work to replace Privacy Shield, the pact that let thousands of firms transfer data across the Atlantic without breaking EU privacy rules.

Why it matters: Without a replacement in place after the EU's high court struck Privacy Shield down last month, thousands of businesses will be stuck complying with an agreement that no longer applies in the EU while scrambling to figure out how to get data over from Europe without exposing themselves to legal risks.