The White House has just decided to draft an executive order specifically for President Donald Trump’s signature that is believed to instruct federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies to open investigations into the business practices of Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc., and other social media companies. According to Time, the order is still in its preliminary stages and has yet to be run past other government agencies.
The document suggests that U.S. antitrust authorities are instructed to “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws.” It also tasks other government agencies to start recommending within a month following the signed actions that could likely “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.”
It should be noted that the document does not necessarily specify the companies involved. But as soon as it is signed, the order would automatically represent a significant escalation of Trump’s antipathy toward as tech giants such as Facebook, Google, and Twitter, among many other social media companies. These firms are the ones the POTUS publicly accused of silencing conservative voices and news sources online.
“Social Media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices,” Trump said via Twitter in August. “Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump Administration, we won’t let that happen. They are closing down the opinions of many people on the RIGHT, while at the same time doing nothing to others.”
Social media companies have acknowledged in congressional hearings that their efforts to enforce prohibitions against online harassment have been successful. However, in some cases, these efforts have resulted in erroneous punishment of political figures – be it on the left or right – and have been corrected already. The companies further suggest that there is no systematic way of silencing conservative voices.
The draft order directs that any actions federal agencies take should be “consistent with other laws” — an apparent nod to concerns that it could threaten the traditional independence of U.S. law enforcement or conflict with the First Amendment, which protects political views from government regulation.
“Because of their critical role in American society, it is essential that American citizens are protected from anticompetitive acts by dominant online platforms,” the order says. It even suggests that consumer harm — a key measure in antitrust investigations – could possibly come “through the exercise of bias.”
The order’s preliminary status is directly reflected in the text of the draft, which includes a note in red that the first section could be expanded “if necessary, to provide more detail on role of platforms and the importance of competition.”
The possibility of an executive order emerged as Attorney General Jeff Sessions prepares for a briefing by state attorneys general come September 25. Apparently, they have all confirmed that they already started investigating the tech firms’ practices.
The meeting is expected to include e a representative of the Justice Department’s antitrust division and is meant to help Sessions decide if there is indeed a federal case to be made against the aforementioned companies. According to official reports, at least one of the attorneys general participating in the meeting has confirmed his plans to seek a way to break up the firms.
Growing movements on the right and left argue that companies including Google and Facebook engage in anticompetitive behavior. The companies reject the accusation, arguing they face robust competition and that many of their products are free. Bias has not typically figured in antitrust examinations.
Take the month of July for instance. It was when Twitter algorithms limited the visibility of some Republicans in profile searches. Jack Dorsey, the company’s chief executive officer, testified before Congress in September and said that the limits also affected some Democrats as the site tried to enforce policies against threats, hate, harassment, or other forms of abusive speech.