Last week, Politico reported that the White House was considering a potential “Executive Order” (EO) to address the ongoing-yet-unproven allegations of pro-liberal, anti-conservative bias by giant Silicon Valley companies such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google. (To the extent that there is rigorous research by AI experts, it shows that social media sites are more likely to flag posts by self-identified African Americans as “hate speech” than identical wording used by whites.) Subsequent reports by CNN and The Verge have provided more detail. Putting the two together, it appears that the Executive Order would require the Federal Communications Commission to create regulations designed to create rules limiting the ability of digital platforms to “remove or suppress content” as well as prohibit “anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive” practices around content moderation. The EO would also require the Federal Trade Commission to somehow open a docket and take complaints (something it does not, at present, do, or have capacity to do – but I will save that hobby horse for another time) about supposed political bias claims.
(I really don’t expect I have to explain why this sort of ham-handed effort at political interference in the free flow of ideas and information is a BAD IDEA. For one thing, I’ve covered this fairly extensively in chapters five and six of my book, The Case for the Digital Platform Act. Also, Chris Lewis, President of my employer Public Knowledge, explained this at length in our press release in response to the reports that surfaced last week. But for those who still don’t get it, giving an administration that regards abuse of power for political purposes as a legitimate tool of governance power to harass important platforms for the exchange of views and information unless they promote its political allies and suppress its critics is something of a worst case scenario for the First Amendment and democracy generally. Even the most intrusive government intervention/supervision of speech in electronic media, such as the Fairness Doctrine, had built in safeguards to insulate the process from political manipulation. Nor are we talking about imposing common carrier-like regulations that remove the government entirely from influencing who gets to use the platform. According to what we have seen so far, we are talking about direct efforts by the government to pick winners and losers — the opposite of net neutrality. That’s not to say that viewpoint-based discrimination on speech platforms can’t be a problem — it’s just that, if it’s a problem, it’s better dealt with through the traditional tools of media policy, such as ownership caps and limits on the size of any one platform, or by using antitrust or regulation to create a more competitive marketplace with fewer bottlenecks.)
I have a number of reasons why I don’t think this EO will ever actually go out. For one thing, it would completely contradict everything that the FCC said in the “Restoring Internet Freedom Order” (RIFO) repealing net neutrality. As a result, the FCC would either have to reverse its previous findings that Section 230 prohibits any government regulation of internet services (including ISPs), or see the regulations struck down as arbitrary and capricious. Even if the FCC tried to somehow reconcile the two, Section 230 applies to ISPs. Any “neutrality” rule that applies to Facebook, Google, and Twitter would also apply to AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast.
But this niggles at my mind enough to ask a good old law school hypothetical. If Trump really did issue an EO similar to the one described, what could the FCC actually do under existing law?