Trump attempts to tame Silicon Valley with questionable results

President Donald Trump has signed an Executive Order intended to limit the protections afforded to social media platforms, though feedback has been varied.

The right-leaning elements of society has celebrated the EO, believing the White House is finally holding the politically biased Silicon Valley accountable, while those on the left side of the spectrum point to an opportunistic attack on opponents. This is a move which has been in the works since Twitter decided to flag two of the President’s tweets as a risk of fake news.

“Twitter now selectively decides to place a warning label on certain tweets in a manner that clearly reflects political bias,” Trump said in the White House statement.

“As has been reported, Twitter seems never to have placed such a label on another politician’s tweet. As recently as last week, Representative Adam Schiff was continuing to mislead his followers by peddling the long-disproved Russian Collusion Hoax, and Twitter did not flag those tweets. Unsurprisingly, its officer in charge of so-called ‘Site Integrity’ has flaunted his political bias in his own tweets.”

Of course what is worth noting is that Trump is no champion of free speech or a protector of the US Constitution, he is a hawk swooping in on enemies; would the President have signed the same order if presumptive Democratic nominee for President Joe Biden or the politically independent Senator for Vermont Bernie Sanders were under the same scrutiny?

The EO attempts to do several things, including:

  • Depict the social media companies as enemies of the US
  • Remove immunity for the social media companies for content which is published on their platforms
  • Designate the social media platforms as ‘publishers’
  • Delegate responsibility of rulemaking to the FCC
  • Restrict how political campaign funds can be spend on social media advertising

Focusing on a section of the Communications Decency Act known as Section 230, passed in 1996, which states:

“No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The intent of this legislation was to protect freedom of speech by ensuring the platform hosting user-created content could not be targeted by those being criticised. Without this protection, the platforms which give the general public a voice could have been the focal point of hundreds of lawsuits and may not have survived their embryonic development stages.

While the original intentions of this law may well have been good, it has been criticised by both sides of the political aisle.

Aside from President Trump’s, as well as numerous other Republicans, complaints over left-wing Californians controlling the technology industry, the Democrat Party has also found issue with Silicon Valley. Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff questioned the role of Section 230 last year as Deepfake videos emerged online, with the social media giants doing little in response.

Interestingly enough, while the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is clearly opposed to the EO, it also feels it is largely redundant and ineffectual.

“President Trump’s Executive Order targeting social media companies is an assault on free expression online and a transparent attempt to retaliate against Twitter for its decision to curate (well, really just to fact-check) his posts and deter everyone else from taking similar steps,” the EFF said in a blog post.

“The good news is that, assuming the final order looks like the draft we reviewed on Wednesday, it won’t survive judicial scrutiny.”

According to the EFF, the clauses mentioned in the EO are not directly linked, in that, should one be affected by the EO it would not mean the protections afforded to the platforms would be diluted. The EFF believes the White House has misunderstood how the courts have already interpreted the law, therefore the path which is being taken forward cannot be legislated for.

Another very interest element to consider is the social media platforms do not have First Amendment obligations as they are private spaces.

This week saw the District Court of Washington DC rule against an appeal from right-leaning Freedom Watch and right-wing YouTube celebrity Laura Loomer. The two parties were attempting to sue Twitter, Facebook and Google for violating antitrust laws and the First Amendment.

The case was filed against the trio of internet giants on the grounds of political bias. Freedom Watch claimed the trio were inhibiting the organisations growth potential, while Loomer was fighting against a 30-day ban for suggesting a Democrat politician was ‘anti-Jewish’.

In the ruling, the three-judge panel said that as private organisations, the social media platforms were not necessarily obliged to First Amendment in terms of facilitating free speech. Private organisations are perfectly entitled to their own opinions, or to curate content in a manner of their choosing.

This might be contrary to the promise of the social media companies to the masses, but it does mean they are shielded from at least some of the President’s attacks.

While some might debate whether this is a document which has the power the President intended, it is a clear statement of intent. The social media companies have firmly entrenched themselves on the Trump enemy list.


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US Senate accused of attacking free speech and security

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has suggested a new bill designed to protect children online is a nothing but a thin veil to undermine free speech and security.

The EARN IT Act, championed by Senators Lindsey Graham and Richard Blumenthal, would create a new agency tasked with developing best practices to tackle online exploitation. Some of these elements would be directed towards the owners of internet platforms, though the EFF argues there are few benefits to the headline objective but serious consequences to free speech and online security.

“While we applaud Congress’ desire to address the sexual exploitation of children online, a more effective way to address that crisis would be to better equip law enforcement agencies to investigate it by adding staffing and funding to more effectively use their current lawful investigative tools,” the EFF said in an open letter to Congress.

Firstly, the EFF has suggested the bill would not benefit the case against online child exploitation. With vague and nuanced language, the EFF suggests there are no meaningful steps forward, and it would not result in aiding organizations that support victims or equipping law enforcement agencies with resources to investigate claims of child exploitation.

Secondly, the EFF claims the bill would seek to regulate how platforms manage online speech. As editorial activities of internet platforms are protected from government interference by the First Amendment, this would be in violation of the US Constitution.

Finally, the EFF believes the bill is another attack on the industry standard security systems which is end-to-end encryption. Numerous governments around the world have attempted to legislate against end-to-end encryption, despite the fact it is a very effective security feature for the consumer, and this is allegedly another attempt to do so.

Progress does need to be made to ensure the internet is a safe place for everyone and anyone, but such attempts to legislate need to be considered and measured. The EFF has a way of exaggerating the potential impact, but it does not necessarily mean it is wrong.

Where to draw the line on free speech – Facebook thinks it has nailed it

One of the most difficult decisions to make when looking at social media is where the line is; what opinions should be deemed as free speech, and which fall into the offensive category.

Some around the worst think opinions should be sacred and never touched, some try to police what can or cannot be said, while others believe opinions which offer any form of opposition should be crushed into the ground. But the complication is personal opinion; some things which are offensive to some, are not to others. When creating a platform for expression, the social media giants have the dreaded task of deciding what should and should not be allowed. Facebook thinks it has struck the right balance.

“The core concept here is whether a particular restriction of speech is necessary to prevent harm,” said Facebook’s Richard Allan, the VP of Policy. “Short of that, the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights] holds that speech should be allowed.

“This is the same test we use to draw the line on Facebook. After all, giving everyone a voice is a positive force in the world, increasing the diversity of ideas shared in public discourse. Whether it’s a peaceful protest in the streets, an op-ed in a newspaper or a post on social media, free expression is key to a thriving society.”

Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is just one of the sources used by the social media giant, but it is an important one. It sets the standards for when it’s appropriate to place restrictions on freedom of expression, but this again is an issue. Who is to say this is right or wrong? Why is person A right, when person B has a different view? The breadth of documentation putting arguments together is breath-taking, as is the number of academics who have an opinion.

That said, instead of looking at what is allowed, Facebook has approached the challenge by looking at what shouldn’t. First are posts that contain a credible threat of violence. This is a simple one for Facebook as it is all about preventing harm. Disagreements are a healthy aspect of social interaction, but when the conversation descends into violent threats, Facebook feels this is the right time to step in. The difficulty here is understanding what threats should be taken seriously.

Hate speech is the second no-no, as it creates environment of intimidation and exclusion. This is a more difficult one to consider, as some instances might be more difficult to judge. Of course, at the extreme end of the scale, it is very easy to spot hate speech, but further down it becomes less clear.

The final area which is another tricky one is fake news. On one hand it is almost impossible to fact check the sheer breadth of fake news, but the team also do not want to take everything which might be considered fake news down. People who believe the world is flat are entitled to post, and some might argue that as there is no concrete proof of god, this could be deemed misinformation. Should all religious posts be banned from Facebook? The key here is when misinformation has real-world, detrimental impacts such as violence or tricking people for profit.

Every rule or policy Facebook introduces will of course be heavily debated, and we suspect the social media giant will cause offence to someone, somewhere irrelevant as to what it does. But at least these rules paint some form of clarity around the contentious debate. How much clarity, we will leave you to decide.