You may not have noticed, what with America's COVID-19 deaths passing the 100,000 mark and cities in an uproar coast-to-coast over police tactics against black residents, but President Trump last week staged a completely fictional attack on Twitter and other online services.
The fiction was embodied in an executive order Trump signed on May 28, purportedly aimed at "preventing online censorship." The order targets Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which dramatically changed the environment for online services hosting user-provided content.
Section 230, which has been consistently misunderstood by its critics across the political spectrum, allows online services to host potentially objectionable, even defamatory user-posted content without becoming liable to legal action themselves, while also giving them the discretion to moderate that content as they wish.
"The section's most fundamental concept is that we want internet companies to manage user content, and not be liable for whatever they miss," says Eric Goldman, an expert in the law at Santa Clara University Law School. "The fear was that if they were liable for whatever they missed, they wouldn't even try."
The tech community has long treated Section 230 as "the most important law on the Internet." As my colleague Sam Dean reports, the title of a book on the section by Jeff Kosseff, a cyberlaw expert at the U.S. Naval Academy, labels its text "the twenty-six words that created the internet."
But the law also has come under concerted attack by plaintiffs who keep looking for loopholes and judges who open them, all aimed at scrubbing distasteful material from the Web.
Trump's executive order is a typical attack on Section 230, launched by someone acting out a personal grievance.
It's so sloppily drafted that it would accomplish nothing resembling the prevention of "online censorship," would be almost certainly unconstitutional if it did, and was basically a reflexive reaction to one offense: Twitter's unprecedented designation of Trump tweets as the embodiment of lies requiring corrections.
Twitter tagged the May 27 tweets, which asserted that mail-in ballots would lead to a "rigged election," with a note directing users to fact-checked information refuting the assertion.
Trump issued his executive order the very next day.