On Thursday President Donald Trump signed an executive order aimed to strip long-standing legal protections for internet platforms, including social media sites, that protect tech companies from litigation over content posted by users on their sites.
The move is a response to Twitter’s Tuesday decision to fact-check two of the president’s tweets about voter fraud. The move angered many of the president’s supporters, but others have called for Twitter to remove the Tweets altogether for apparently violating the site’s terms of service. The feud escalated Friday when Twitter placed a warning over one of Trump’s tweets about the riots in Minneapolis, which started after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, at the hands of police.
The order also follows yearsof accusations from Republicans of anti-conservative bias on the sites, which Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was brought to testify about in front of congress in 2018. The claims eventually culminated in a 2019 bill introduced by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) which Trump’s executive order closely resembles.
The bill and the executive order strike at the law that is among the most consequential in the history of tech regulation. Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act protects tech companies from being sued for the content that people post on their sites.
In response to Hawley’s bill, Twitter took to Capitol Hill. Four lobbying disclosures reveal Twitter’s lobbyists discussed the bill with lawmakers between April 2019 and March 2020, costing the company around $240,000. Twitter is also a member of Netchoice, a group that represents, among others, Facebook, Google and TikTok. Those companies also lobbied against Hawley’s bill.
Lobbying disclosures show that three companies, two conservative think tanks and an industry group representing 35 online companies lobbied for or against Hawley’s “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act.
The fight over the 2019 bill was merely the latest in a long history that’s seen tens of millions spent by companies fighting for or against laws that threatened the broad protections offered by Section 230.
Created in the early days of the internet, Section 230 was written in part to encourage growth in the sector and assuage start-ups’ fears of litigation. Since then, it has become a point of contention for lawmakers and competing industries as social media sites grapple with their place among the world’s largest disseminators of information — and disinformation. Over the past decade, tens of millions of dollars have been spent lobbying for and against the law as its Silicon Valley proponents became some of the biggest spenders in Washington.
Since 2017, 37 companies and industry groups lobbied on Section 230, and spent a total of $242.5 million lobbying on all issues. Facebook was one of the two companies which filed the most disclosures referencing Section 230, along with Oath Inc., the parent company of Yahoo! and AOL.
While the social media giants that have found themselves in Trump’s crosshairs have long been proponents of keeping Section 230 in place, other industries have lobbied to weaken its protections.
In a letter to the Department of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America urged lawmakers to consider narrowing the scope of Section 230, which they accused of helping to foster content pirating. The MPAA represents Disney and Fox, both of which have spent money lobbying to remove or narrow the protections of Section 230. A 2019 New York Times report found that Marriott opposed the law because of protections it offered to home-sharing platforms such as Airbnb.
While the current dust-up is centered around conservative anger at what they perceive as censorship, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have raised issues with Section 230. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said “it is not out of the question that it could be removed,” in a 2019 interview, amid rising Democratic concern over foreign election influence and misinformation proliferating on social media platforms. Although the greater threat appears to come from conservatives. While Trump’s executive order is likely to be challenged in court, he appears to be rallying conservatives to his side.
“If we just wait around, big tech will steal this election from Donald Trump and the American people,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) on Fox News. Fox, along with another Rupert Murdoch company, News Corp, have both disclosed lobbying on Section 230-related issues. How they lobbied is impossible to tell from disclosures alone, but one of Fox News’ biggest personalities, Tucker Carlson, advocated for changing Section 230 on his primetime show the night Trump signed the executive order.
The threat from conservative lawmakers comes as contributions from employees at Facebook, Twitter and Google have swung strongly to the left. At Facebook, 46 percent of employee contributions to political campaigns and PACs went to Republicans in 2014. That number has shrunk each cycle since, down to just under 11 percent this year. At Google, that number shrank from 40 percent to 12 percent over the same time period. At Twitter, which has always bent more Democratic in contributions, the number went from 22 percent to less than 1 percent.
Among the three companies named in Trump’s executive order, Facebook has been the biggest spender on lobbying, spending over $16 million in 2019 alone. This year, Facebook spent $5.26 million on lobbying in the first quarter, the most the company has spent in a single quarter in its history. This put Facebook in the top 10 spenders of 2020 so far.
In 2019, Twitter spent nearly $1.5 million on lobbying, putting it in the top 10 percent of all spenders on lobbying that year. Like Facebook, Twitter has increased its lobbying spending almost every year.