US President Donald Trump is escalating his war on social media companies, signing an executive order challenging the liability protections that have served as a bedrock for unfettered speech on the internet.
The move follows the President lashing out at Twitter in recent days for applying fact checks to two of his tweets.
Mr Trump said the fact checks were “editorial decisions” by Twitter and amounted to political activism.
He said it should cost those companies their protection from lawsuits for what is posted on their platforms.
The order, which proposes modifying a law known as Section 230, directs executive branch agencies including the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission to study whether they can place new rules on the companies.
Section 230 protects internet companies from liability for content posted by their users.
Mr Trump’s proposal has multiple, serious legal problems and is unlikely to survive a challenge, according to Matt Schruers, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a Washington-based organisation that represents computer and internet companies.
“The irony that is lost here is that if these protections were to go away, social media services would be far more aggressive in moderating content and terminating accounts,” Mr Schruers said.
“Our vibrant public sphere of discussion would devolve into nothing more than preapproved soundbites.”
The executive order was threatened after Mr Trump attacked Twitter for tagging his tweets about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting with a warning prompting readers to fact-check the posts.
Companies such as Twitter and Facebook are granted liability protection under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act because they are treated as “platforms”, rather than “publishers”, which can face lawsuits over content.
Mr Trump, who personally relies heavily on Twitter to verbally flog his foes, has long accused the tech giants in liberal-leaning Silicon Valley of targeting conservatives by fact-checking them or removing their posts.
“We’re fed up with it,” he said, claiming the order would uphold freedom of speech.
“They’ve had unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide, alter virtually any form of communication between private citizens or large public audiences.
“There is no precedent in American history for so small a number of corporations to control so large a sphere of human interaction.”
Mr Trump and his campaign reacted after Twitter added a warning phrase to two tweets by the President that called mail-in ballots “fraudulent” and predicted “mail boxes will be robbed.”
Under the tweets, there’s now a link reading “Get the facts about mail-in ballots” that guides users to a page with fact checks and news stories about Trump’s unsubstantiated claims.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told Fox News he didn’t “think that Facebook or internet platforms in general should be arbiters of truth“.
“I think that’s a kind of a dangerous line to get down to in terms of deciding what is true and what isn’t,” he said.
“I think political speech is one of the most sensitive parts in a democracy. And people should be able to see what what politicians say. And there’s there’s a ton of scrutiny already.
“Now, of course, we have lines. So, just because we don’t want to be determining what is true and false doesn’t mean that the politicians, or anyone else, can just say whatever they want.”