Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Trump's war with Twitter is confronting social media platforms with a hard dilemma: whether to take fuller responsibility for what people say on their services, or to step back and assume a more quasi-governmental role.

The big picture: Facebook is trying to be more like a government committing to impartiality and protecting free speech and building mechanisms for arbitration. Twitter, pushed by Trump's inflammatory messages, is opting to more aggressively enforce conduct rules on its private property, like a mall owner enforcing rules inside the gates.

  • History lesson: If an online moderator lays down a rule, a user will deliberately test it: That pattern has dominated the evolution of Internet speech for four decades, ever since online forums first tried to rein in obstreperous participants.

Be smart: The escalating battle between President Trump and Twitter is now splaying this dynamic out on the stage of national politics, during a pandemic, at a moment of high tension over police violence. That's forcing Twitter and Facebook, which have long enjoyed the fruits of their ambiguous status as private companies with public roles, to make hard choices.

Why it matters: For better and worse, Twitter and Facebook have become versions of the town square: They're where we conduct public life. But they're also privately owned and operated platforms governed by the laws of business.

The U.S.'s cherished First Amendment aims to block the government from limiting what citizens can say.

  • It places no obligations on private individuals or companies.
  • But its principles have become a broader touchstone for American values.
  • While Twitter and Facebook don't have to apply the First Amendment to their platforms, they do have to obey laws governing crimes like child abuse and human trafficking.

Free speech has been a rallying cry for the internet ever since the Supreme Court struck down the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which sought to ban online pornography.

  • The only substantial part of the CDA still on the books is Section 230, which says that online service providers can't be held legally responsible for the speech contributed by their users.
  • That's the law that the president now wants to revoke because of what he claims is bias against conservatives.

Yes, but: Conservatives have long opposed limits on the freedom of private companies, and the notion that corporations are people with the same free speech rights as individuals sits at the heart of the right's legal doctrine.

  • It's the basis for the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which opened the floodgates for campaign spending by companies.

Trump is now forcing a different question: Whether we're happy with corporations assuming government-style First Amendment responsibilities to tolerate even offensive speech.

The bottom line: When the laws governing social media content were set in the '90s, the biggest fear in the minds of internet activists was a power-grabbing government telling people what they could and couldn't say online.

  • No one imagined a situation where a trolling president would cry "censorship" at a private company trying to enforce its rules.

Go deeper

Reddit's ban on The_Donald marks end of an internet dream

Photo: Omar Marques/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Reddit's decision to shut down a forum for notoriously combative Trump supporters puts a final nail in the coffin of one particular dream of internet idealists: the idea that online discussion spaces could, and should, serve as a universal meeting ground.

Why it matters: There's a dwindling number of environments in news media, social media, and society where Americans across the Trump era's great political divide communicate with one another — or have a chance to hear what the other side is saying.

Graham to narrow tech liability bill

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

A bipartisan bill taking aim at tech's liability shield will be narrowed so that it no longer threatens online platforms with losing that shield's protections if they don't meet government-set standards.

Why it matters: The EARN IT Act represents one of the most pressing threats to websites' immunity from liability over user-posted content amid Trump administration attacks on the shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

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Top business leaders urge White House to develop mandatory mask guidelines

A man walks past a Ramen restaurant in Los Angeles, California on July 1. Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

The heads of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, National Retail Federation and other top business organizations wrote an open letter on Thursday urging the White House coronavirus task force to work with governors to make face coverings mandatory in all public spaces.

Driving the news: An analysis led by Goldman Sachs' chief economist found that a national mandate requiring face coverings would "could potentially substitute for lockdowns that would otherwise subtract nearly 5% from GDP," the Washington Post reports.