Trump’s executive order attacking social media companies faces its first legal challenge

An executive order from the White House targeting Twitter for moderating one of the president’s posts is being challenged in a new lawsuit from a digital rights group. The president signed the order last week after Twitter added a fact-checking label to one of his tweets that made false claims about mail-in voting.

The order, signed with the blessing of Attorney General William Barr, took aim in particular at a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet companies from legal liability for the content they host.

The lawsuit was filed by the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a nonprofit focused on defending online civil liberties. That group and other online civil organizations organizations attacked the president’s order last week, with the ACLU dismissing the action as a “blatant, thin-skinned efforts to stifle expression.”

In the suit, embedded below, the CDT argues that the executive order is “plainly retaliatory” in attacking Twitter, which was within its First Amendment rights in annotating the president’s tweet. The lawsuit also criticized the president’s intention to “curtail and chill the constitutionally protected speech of all online platforms and individuals” by wielding the power of the government against its critics.

Twitter shared its support for the CDT’s suit on Tuesday, calling the executive order “a reactionary and politicized” action that encroaches on a free internet.

Tensions between Twitter and President Trump continued to escalate as the company took action against another of the president’s tweets late last week for glorifying violence. That tweet threatened U.S. protesters with the ominous statement “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”—a phrase with troubling historical roots in state-sanctioned violence against black Americans.

“The Executive Order is designed to deter social media services from fighting misinformation, voter suppression, and the stoking of violence on their platforms,” CDT President and CEO Alexandra Givens said.

“… The President has made clear his intent to use threats of retaliation and future regulation to intimidate intermediaries into changing how they moderate content, essentially ensuring that the dangers of voter suppression and disinformation will grow unchecked in an election year.”

Twitter restricts Republican lawmaker’s Antifa tweet for ‘glorifying violence’

Twitter placed a tweet from a close political ally of the president behind a warning label Monday, citing its policy prohibiting content that promotes violence.

The tweet, from Republican Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, suggested that the U.S. government “hunt down” anti-fascist activists in the country like it would pursue international terrorists.

“We have placed a public interest notice on this Tweet from @mattgaetz,” a Twitter spokesperson told TechCrunch, linking its platform policy page. Twitter users can still share the tweet with comment, but regular retweets, likes and replies have been deactivated.

Consistent with its previously announced policy concerning tweets from public figures that violate its rules, Twitter left the post up but placed it behind a note.  “We want to make it clear today that the accounts of world leaders are not above our policies entirely,” Twitter wrote in the policy, released last year. “… We will err on the side of leaving the content up if there is a clear public interest in doing so.”

This story is developing.

Trump signs an executive order taking direct aim at social media companies

On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order taking aim at the legal shield that internet companies rely on to protect them from liability for user-created content. That law, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is essential to large social platforms like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, the kind of companies the president has long accused, without evidence, of engaging in anti-conservative censorship.

Trump was joined during the signing by Attorney General William Barr, who has previously expressed interest in stripping away or limiting the same legal protections. During the signing, Trump claimed that social media companies have “unchecked power” influenced by their “points of view.” Earlier in the day the president tweeted “This will be a Big Day for Social Media and FAIRNESS!”

On Tuesday, Twitter added warning labels to two tweets from the president that made false claims about vote-by-mail systems. The label, which did not hide the tweets or even actually outright call them false, pointed users toward a fact-checking page. The move enraged the president, who lashed out through tweets, and encouraged his followers to direct their ire toward Yoel Roth, Twitter’s head of site integrity.

The executive order is not yet published, but we examined a draft of it previously that is likely to bear a close resemblance to the finished copy. Civil rights groups and internet freedom watchdogs denounced the order Thursday, with the co-creator of the law in Trump’s crosshairs dismissing his actions as “plainly illegal.”

This story is developing

Going to war with Twitter, Trump threatens critical social media legal protections

Accusing Twitter of censorship for adding a contextual label to false claims he made about the 2020 election process, President Trump has again declared war on social media companies.

After the White House told reporters that the president would soon announce an executive order “pertaining to social media,” the draft of that order is out in circulation. We’ve reviewed the draft, and while its contents are somewhat shocking by the standards of a normal administration, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen the Trump administration lash out at social media companies over accusations of political bias. In fact, we may be seeing the same executive order now that circulated in draft form last year.

A draft of an executive order is just that: a draft. Until the administration actually introduces or signs an order, its wishes — and threats — should be taken with a grain of salt. But we can get an idea of what this White House has in mind for punishing social media companies for ongoing unfounded claims of anti-conservative censorship.

The president’s draft order tries to exert control over social media companies in a few ways. The most ominous of those is by attacking a law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That law, often regarded as the legal infrastructure for the social internet, shields online platforms from legal liability for the content their users create. Without the law, Twitter or Facebook or YouTube (or Yelp or Reddit or any website with a comments section, including this one) could be sued for the stuff their users post.

Whether you think they should be held more accountable for their content or not, in a world without Section 230, social media companies would never have been able to scale into the services we use today.

The draft order attacks this legal provision by claiming that that part of the law means that “an online platform that engaged in any editing or restriction of content posted by others thereby became itself a ‘publisher,'” implying that a company would then be legally liable for things its users say. This is a misleading interpretation at best and one that seems specifically intended to let the White House intimidate companies like Twitter into moderating platforms even less.

This interpretation is a willful inversion of what the law really intends. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), who co-authored Section 230, often says that the law provides companies with both a sword and a shield. The “shield” protects companies from legal liability and the “sword” allows them to make moderation decisions without facing liability for that either.

While Trump is trying to intimidate social media companies into doing even less moderation — such as Twitter labeling the falsehood he tweeted — the consensus beyond this politically expedient viewpoint is that social media should actually be removing and contextualizing more of the potentially harmful content on their platforms.

“Members across the spectrum, including far-right House and Senate leaders, are agitating for government regulation of internet platforms,” Wyden wrote in a prescient TechCrunch op-ed two years ago calling for tech companies to step up or face an existential threat.

“Even if the government doesn’t take the dangerous step of regulating speech, just eliminating the [Section] 230 protections is enough to have a dramatic, chilling effect on expression across the internet.”

Beyond attacking Twitter’s moderation decisions through Section 230, the draft executive order says the White House will reestablish a “tech bias” reporting tool, presumably so it can unsystematically collect anecdotal evidence that he and his supporters are being unfairly targeted on social platforms. According to the order, the White House would then submit those reports to the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The order would further rope in the FTC to make a public report of complaints and “consider taking action” against social media companies that “restrict speech.”

It’s not clear what kind of action, if any, the FTC would have legal ground to take.

The order also asks the Commerce Secretary to file a petition that would require the Federal Communications Commission to “clarify” parts of Section 230 — a role the commission isn’t likely eager to embrace.

“Social media can be frustrating. But an executive order that would turn the FCC into the president’s speech police is not the answer,” Democratic FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel tweeted on Thursday morning.

The order also calls for the U.S. Attorney General William Barr to form a working group of state attorneys general “regarding the enforcement of state statutes” to collect information about social media practices, another presumably legally unsound exercise in partisanship. Barr, a close Trump ally, has expressed his own appetite for dismantling tech’s legal protections in recent months.

While Trump’s executive order may prove toothless, there is some appetite for dismantling Section 230 among tech’s critics in Congress — a branch of the government with much more power to hold companies accountable.

The most prominent of those threats is currently the EARN-IT Act, a Senate bill introduced in March that would amend Section 230 “to allow companies to “‘earn’ their liability protection” under the guise of pressuring them to crack down on enforcement against child sexual exploitation. The executive order doesn’t directly connect to that proposal, but sounding the war drums against the tech industry’s key legal provision will likely signal Trump’s Republican allies to double down on those efforts.

In response to the circulating draft executive order, Twitter declined to comment when reached by TechCrunch, and Facebook and Google did not respond to our emails. The Internet Association, the lobbying group that represents the interests of internet companies, was out with a statement opposing the president’s efforts on Thursday morning:

“Section 230, by design and reinforced by several decades of case law, empowers platforms and services to remove harmful, dangerous, and illegal content based on their terms of service, regardless of who posted the content or their motivations for doing so.

“Based on media reports, this proposed executive order seems designed to punish a handful of companies for perceived slights and is inconsistent with the purpose and text of Section 230. It stands to undermine a variety of government efforts to protect public safety and spread critical information online through social media and threatens the vibrancy of a core segment of our economy.”

The group also pointed to the fact that political figures rely on social media to successfully broadcast their thoughts to millions of followers every day—80 million, in Trumps’ case.

The ACLU also weighed in on the executive order Thursday morning. “Much as he might wish otherwise, Donald Trump is not the president of Twitter,” said ACLU Senior Legislative Counsel Kate Ruane. “This order, if issued, would be a blatant and unconstitutional threat to punish social media companies that displease the president.”

“Ironically, Donald Trump is a big beneficiary of Section 230. If platforms were not immune under the law, then they would not risk the legal liability that could come with hosting Donald Trump’s lies, defamation, and threats.”

Jack Dorsey explains why Twitter fact-checked Trump’s false voting claims

After Twitter flagged a pair of President Trump’s tweets with a fact-checking label on Tuesday, tensions between the president and his favored social media platform are running high.

On Wednesday night, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey—rarely one to pick a political fight—took to his own platform to clarify the company’s decision.

In the statement, Dorsey referenced comments Mark Zuckerberg made to Fox News contrasting Facebook’s obsessively neutral approach to policing its platform with Twitter’s present situation. “I just believe strongly that Facebook shouldn’t be the arbiter of truth of everything that people say online,” Zuckerberg said. “Private companies… especially these platform companies, shouldn’t be in the position of doing that.”

Dorsey also denounced Trump’s online supporters and surrogates for going after the company’s executives, asking the Twitter’s newly energized critics, inspired by Trump’s own ire toward the company, to “please leave our employees out of this.”

On Dorsey’s own account and the official Twitter Safety account, the company clarified that its decision to add a fact-checking link to two of Trump’s tweets stemmed specifically from the possibility that they might “confuse voters about what they need to do to receive a ballot and participate in the election process.”

In the tweets the company added a label to—but did not hide or remove—the president states falsely that California’s governor is “sending ballots to millions of people, anyone living in the state no matter who they are or how they got there.” In reality, the state is only sending the ballots to registered voters. Trump also made fear-mongering false claims about the integrity of mail-in voting, a system already widely used around the country in the form of absentee ballots.

With his clarification, Dorsey linked to what Twitter calls its “civic integrity policy,” a set of rules prohibiting certain kinds of “manipulative behavior” on the platform. Per those rules, misleading information about how to vote, the documents required to vote or the date and time of an election of other civic process are prohibited. Under the policy, broader claims about elections “such as unsubstantiated claims that an election is ‘rigged'” are not prohibited.

Twitter’s list of possible enforcement actions includes forcing users to delete the tweets, locking their account if the misinformation is present in a bio or permanent suspension “for severe or repeated violations of this policy.”

Though the timing might be coincidental, Tuesday’s move by Twitter came on the heels of a series of tweets from Trump promoting a baseless conspiracy theory that MSNBC host and political rival Joe Scarborough was responsible for the death of a Congressional intern almost two decades prior.

On Wednesday evening, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters the president would soon sign an executive order “pertaining to social media,” widely expected to be a shocking though likely unsubstantial strike back at Twitter’s policy enforcement choices this week. The order may rehash the White House’s previous stalled efforts to threaten Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a vital legal provision underpinning the modern internet—and wield power against social media companies through the FTC and FCC.

Alluding to the expected retaliation, Trump tweeted “Stay Tuned!!!” to his more than 80 million followers.

YouTube says that an error caused comments critical of China’s government to auto-delete

YouTube responded to reports that it is automatically deleting comments criticizing the Chinese government on Tuesday, explaining that the seeming censorship is actually an error in its automated moderation systems.

As the Verge reported, comments on the platform using the Chinese phrases for “communist bandit” or “50-cent party“—two terms tied to criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party were taken down almost instantly, even if those comments were positive. The latter term (五毛 or “wumao dang) refers to China’s censorship efforts, particularly the idea that online commenters are paid to deflect criticism for the government.

Oculus and Anduril founder Palmer Luckey drew attention to the phenomenon on Monday.

In a statement, a YouTube spokesperson told TechCrunch that the auto-deletions were a result of “an error in our enforcement systems” that the company is looking into.

“Users can report suspected issues to troubleshoot errors and help us make product improvements,” the spokesperson said.

According to YouTube, the situation is an accidental side effect of the platform’s comment moderation system, which is designed to filter out hate speech, harassment and spam. The company didn’t offer further insight as to how the terms wound up flagged by its automated systems.

With the vast majority of their workforces out of the office, major tech platforms have leaned more heavily on AI moderation methods in recent months, even as they acknowledged that less human oversight would likely lead to more instances of content mistakenly being taken down.

Twitter plans to expand its misinformation labels—but will they apply to Trump?

President Trump is again testing Twitter’s stomach for misinformation flowing from its most prominent users.

In a flurry of recent tweets, Trump floated conspiracy theories about the death of Lori Klausutis, an intern for former congressman Joe Scarborough who was found dead in his Florida office in 2001—a freak accident a medical examiner reported resulted from a fall stemming from an undiagnosed heart condition. Scarborough, a political commentator and host of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, is a prominent Trump critic and a frequent target for the president’s political ire.

The medical evaluation and lack of any evidence suggesting something nefarious in the former intern’s death has not been enough to discourage Trump from revisiting the topic frequently in recent days.

“When will they open a Cold Case on the Psycho Joe Scarborough matter in Florida. Did he get away with murder?” Trump tweeted in mid-May. A week later, Trump encouraged his followers to “Keep digging, use forensic geniuses!” on the long-closed case.

In a statement provided to TechCrunch, Twitter expressed that the company is “deeply sorry about the pain these statements, and the attention they are drawing, are causing the family.”

“We’ve been working to expand existing product features and policies so we can more effectively address things like this going forward, and we hope to have those changes in place shortly,” a Twitter spokesperson said.

When asked for clarity about what product and policy changes the company was referring to, Twitter pointed us to its blog post on the labels the company introduced to flag “synthetic and manipulated media” and more recently COVID-19 misinformation. The company indicated that it plans to expand the use of misinformation labels outside of those existing categories.

Twitter will not apply a label or warning to Trump’s recent wave of Scarborough conspiracy tweets, but the suggestion here is that future labels could be used to mitigate harm in situations like this one. Whether that means labeling unfounded accusations of criminality or labeling that kind of claim when made by the president of the United States remains to be seen.

In March, Twitter gave a video shared by White House social media director Dan Scavino and retweeted by Trump its “manipulated content” label—a rare action against the president’s account. The misleadingly edited video showed presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden calling to re-elect Trump.

According to the blog post Twitter pointed us to, the company previously said it will add new labels to “provide context around different types of unverified claims and rumors as needed.”

Even within existing categories—COVID-19 misinformation and manipulated media—Twitter has so far been reluctant to apply labels to high profiles accounts like that of the president, a frequent purveyor of online misinformation.

Twitter also recently introduced a system of warnings that hide a tweet, requiring the user to click through to view it. The tweets that are hidden behind warnings “[depend] on the propensity for harm and type of misleading information” they contain.

Trump’s renewed interest in promoting the baseless conspiracy theory prompted the young woman’s widower T.J. Klausutis to write a letter to Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey requesting that the president’s tweets be removed.

In the letter, Klausutis told Dorsey he views protecting his late wife’s memory as part of his marital obligation, even in her death. “My request is simple: Please delete these tweets,” Klausutis wrote.

“An ordinary user like me would be banished from the platform for such a tweet but I am only asking that these tweets be removed.”

Facebook makes big remote work moves with plan for new hubs in Dallas, Denver and Atlanta

In a livestreamed town hall, Mark Zuckerberg gave an overview for what he expects in the near future as Facebook pursues accommodations to keep workers productive and safe during the COVID-19 crisis. The move comes as large tech companies reassess the viability of their iconic Silicon Valley campuses, now empty as the pandemic keeps most employees at home.

Part of Zuckerberg’s vision, announced Thursday, includes the surprise announcement that Facebook will be setting up new company hubs in Denver, Dallas and Atlanta. Zuckerberg also noted that Facebook will focus on finding new hires in areas near its existing offices, looking to cities like San Diego, Portland, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The Facebook CEO estimated that over the course of the next decade, half of the company could be working fully remotely.

Zuckerberg also elaborated on what kinds of roles would and would not be eligible for all-remote work, noting that positions in divisions like hardware development, data centers, recruiting, policy and partnerships would not be able to shift away from a physical office due to their need for proximity.

“When you limit hiring to people who live in a small number of big cities, or are willing to move there, that cuts out a lot of people who live in different communities, have different backgrounds, have different perspectives,” Zuckerberg said.

For Menlo Park employees looking for greener pastures, there’s one sizable catch. Starting on January 1 of next year, the company will localize all salaries, scaling compensation to the cost of living in the enclaves Facebook employees may soon find themselves scattered to.

Democratic senators flag Uber’s possible Grubhub deal over antitrust concerns

In a new letter to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice, a group of Democrats in the Senate urge regulators to “closely monitor the negotiations” between Uber and Grubhub and to initiate an antitrust investigation if a rumored deal between the two companies comes to pass.

In a letter signed by Senators Amy Klobuchar, Patrick Leahy, Richard Blumenthal and Cory Booker, the lawmakers caution that a merger between Uber’s food delivery service Uber Eats and its competitor Grubhub would lead to “serious competition issues” and a market dominated by only two remaining players. They also called attention to the unique leverage food delivery companies have over gig workers and restaurants right now as those services see explosive growth from new users seeking to get food safely during the crisis.

“As our country grapples with the many health and safety challenges brought about by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many consumers have turned to food delivery apps to order meals online, and many restaurants have come to rely on the business they get through these apps to stay afloat,” the group of lawmakers wrote.

Following a Wall Street Journal report on the potential merger last week, House antitrust subcommittee chair Rep. David Cicilline called it “a new low in pandemic profiteering.”

 

Palantir picks up more COVID-19 contracts, this time with the VA

Palantir, the data analytics company co-founded by Peter Thiel, is already an active tech player in the scrum for federal contracts, but it’s playing a new and increasingly prominent role in providing the government with software tools to address the COVID-19 crisis.

This month, the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded a new $5 million contract to Palantir through veteran-owned software reseller i3 Federal LLC, which lists Palantir as a partner. The contract, set to run through November, will provide the VA with Palantir’s Gotham software to “track and analyze COVID-19 outbreak areas and make timely decisions with insight into supply chain capacity, hospital inventory, social service utilization and lab diagnostics.”

Palantir’s Gotham tool, best known for its use by law enforcement agencies, is one of the company’s main products and collects disparate data streams onto one platform. Twitter user Jack Poulson first spotted the contract, which was later reported by FedScoop.

A smaller contract also listed this month awards Palantir $2 million to provide the National Institutes of Health within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) a”COVID-19 dataset aggregation proof of concept.”

Palantir moved early to provide its services to governments grappling with the threat of the coronavirus and by mid-March was already working with the CDC to model infection patterns and anticipate hospital equipment needs.

In April, HHS awarded two contracts worth nearly $25 million to the company for software for a software platform called HHS Protect Now, intended to inform public health decisions made by the White House’s Coronavirus Task Force. HHS didn’t solicit competition for those contracts, noting that the COVID-19 crisis created a situation of “unusual and compelling urgency.”