Advocacy Groups Sue Trump Over Order Aimed at Preventing Online Censorship

August 27, 2020 Updated: August 27, 2020

Several advocacy groups have sued President Donald Trump on Thursday to challenge his executive order from May that called for regulations to protect users from unfair or deceptive content restriction practices employed by social media platforms.

The lawsuit filed in a federal court in California accused the Trump administration of seeking to punish social-media companies for fact-checking the president’s posts. The suit claimed the president’s order is “fundamentally incompatible” with the First Amendment because it “deprives users of their right to receive information curated by online platforms.”

The groups asked the court to declare the order “unconstitutional and invalid” and to block its implementation or enforcement.

Trump signed the executive order on May 28 directing federal agencies to develop regulations that protect users from unfair or deceptive content restriction practices employed by online platforms. The order aimed to roll back liability protections under Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.

Section 230 largely exempts online platforms from liability for content posted by their users, although they can be held liable for content that violates anti-sex trafficking or intellectual property laws.

The law allows companies to block or screen content “in good faith” if they consider it “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.” The protections, however, weren’t intended to apply to services that act more like publishers than online platforms, Attorney General William Barr said in a speech in May.

The order was signed days after Twitter added a new “fact-checking” label on two of Trump’s tweets, to which he responded by accusing the company of election interference.

The lawsuit filed on behalf of Common Cause, Free Press, Maplight, Rock the Vote, and Vote Latino argues that social media platforms “have First Amendment rights to ensure that accurate information … is not undermined by misinformation on their platforms.”

“Plaintiffs have a corresponding right to receive that curated information, free from governmental interference,” they argued in their complaint (pdf).

“The Executive Order violates that right by undermining online platforms’ ability to moderate and speak and, in turn, impeding the efforts of those, like Plaintiffs, who rely on and advocate for truthful and accurate information online, including about voting.”

Attorney General William Barr, who is named as one of the defendants in the suit, in June warned the Section 230 was no longer doing what it was intended to do, adding that there was a need to update the federal law.

He said the internet and tech industry has evolved since section 230 was adopted 25 years ago. At the time, it was used to protect websites that served as bulletin boards for third-party content and to give protection to companies from liability for removing content such as child pornography or human trafficking advertising, he said.

But now, he said, section 230 has been interpreted in such a broad manner that has left online platforms “unaccountable for a variety of harms flowing from content on their platforms and with virtually unfettered discretion to censor third-party content with little transparency or accountability.”

The Justice Department (DOJ) has proposed a series of legislative changes for congress to consider that would curtail broad legal protections for online platforms in an effort to push tech companies to address illicit material while moderating content responsibly.

The DOJ declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Bowen Xiao and Petr Svab contributed to this report.

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