Is Trump Taking My Advice?

I made a case, here and here, for preemptive action against Big Tech’s censorship of conservative viewpoints. There has been some movement along anti-trust lines, but Trump’s executive order on social media is a big step in the right direction. Stewart Baker (The Volokh Conspiracy) explains:

The order really only has two and a half substantive provisions, and they’re all designed to increase the transparency of takedown decisions.

The first provision tells NTIA (the executive branch’s liaison to the FCC) to suggest a rulemaking to the FCC. The purpose of the rule is to spell out what it means for the tech giants to carry out their takedown policies “in good faith.” The order makes clear the President’s view that takedowns are not “taken in good faith if they are “deceptive, pretextual, or inconsistent with a provider’s terms of service” or if they are “the result of inadequate notice, the product of unreasoned explanation, or [undertaken] without a meaningful opportunity to be heard.” This is not a Fairness Doctrine for the internet; it doesn’t mandate that social media show balance in their moderation policies. It is closer to a Due Process Clause for the platforms.  They may not announce a neutral rule and then apply it pretextually. And the platforms can’t ignore the speech interests of their users by refusing to give users even notice and an opportunity to be heard when their speech is suppressed.

The second substantive provision is similar. It asks the FTC, which has a century of practice disciplining the deceptive and unfair practices of private companies, to examine social media takedown decisions through that lens.  The FTC is encouraged (as an independent agency it can’t be told) to determine whether entities relying on section 230 “restrict speech in ways that do not align with those entities’ public representations about those practices.”

(The remaining provision is an exercise of the President’s sweeping power to impose conditions on federal contracting. It tells federal agencies to take into account the “viewpoint-based speech restrictions imposed by each online platform” in deciding whether the platform is an “appropriate” place for the government to post its own speech. It’s hard to argue with that provision in the abstract. Federal agencies have no business advertising on, say, Pornhub. In application, of course, there are plenty of improper or unconstitutional ways the policy could play out. But as a vehicle for government censorship it lacks teeth; one doubts that the business side of these companies cares how many federal agencies maintain their own Facebook pages or Twitter accounts. And in any event, we’ll have time to evaluate this sidecar provision when it is actually applied.)

That’s it.  The order calls on social media platforms to explain their speech suppression policies and then to apply them honestly. It asks them to provide notice, a fair hearing, and an explanation to users who think they’ve been treated unfairly or worse by particular moderators.

I would take a much harder line (follow the links in the first sentence of this post). But something is better than nothing. It’s a shot across the bow of Big Tech, though I would prefer a nuclear-tipped torpedo below the water line.

An Aside about the Cold Civil War

Imprimis has published a lecture by Charles R. Kesler, editor of Clarement Review of Books, about “America’s Cold Civil War“. It’s worth a read, but Kesler’s rendering of the subversion of the Constitution is on the skimpy side, as is his analysis of options for a resolution of the cold civil war. For a more complete treatment of those and related matters, see my page, “Constitution: Myths and Realities“, and the many posts listed at the bottom of the page.

One passage in Kesler’s lecture caught my attention:

Since 1968, the norm in America has been divided government: the people have more often preferred to split control of the national government between the Democrats and the Republicans rather than entrust it to one party. This had not previously been the pattern in American politics. Prior to 1968, Americans would almost always (the exceptions proved the rule) entrust the Senate, the House of Representatives, and the Presidency to the same party in each election. They would occasionally change the party, but still they would vote for a party to run the government. Not so for the last 50 years.

I decided to look at the numbers to see if Kesler has it right. In fact, the “norm” of divided government began in Eisenhower’s presidency. The GOP eked out a narrow hold on both houses of Congress in 1952, when Ike won his first term.. But the GOP relinquished that hold in 1954, and didn’t regain until 1994, during Clinton’s presidency. Since 1952 only JFK, LBJ, and Carter — Democrats all — enjoyed same-party control of Congress throughout their presidencies.

The real story, as I see it, is the unusual era from 1952 through 1988, when Republican presidential candidates outpolled their congressional counterparts. Here, for your entertainment (if not edification), is a graphical version of the story (right-click to open a larger image in a new tab):