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Politics

Trump wants to strike back at Big Tech. There’s not much he can do.

He's already exhausted most of his options.

Trump wants to strike back at Big Tech. There’s not much he can do.

Trump wants to spend his final week as president getting back at Twitter and Facebook for suspending him.

Photo: Oliver Contreras/Getty Images

President Trump has been telling anyone who will listen that he wants to do something to strike back at Big Tech in the final days of his presidency, promising a "big announcement" soon after Twitter permanently banned him last week.

In a statement that Twitter has taken down multiple times, Trump hammered usual targets — Section 230, the "Radical Left" controlling the world's largest tech platforms — and pledged he would not be "SILENCED." But at this point, as he faces a second impeachment and a Republican establishment revolting against him in the waning days of his presidency, there's likely very little that Trump can actually do that would inflict long-lasting damage on tech companies.

With a little more than a week left in his presidency, and facing existential questions about the role that he played in inciting violence in the nation's capitol last week, Trump and top Republicans have every incentive to change the conversation to target Big Tech, their favorite bogeyman. But any efforts would likely amount to performative theatrics that do nothing to wear down the power of the tech platforms, and simply serve to distract from the conversation about whether the president should be immediately removed from office after helping to incite a riot.

"I don't think he has any power," said one Republican technology adviser who is sympathetic to the president's efforts. "It's not like he has any friends right now."

Rachel Bovard, a Capitol Hill veteran and senior adviser for the right-wing Internet Accountability Project, said she would like to see the White House act aggressively against the tech companies, but she's unconvinced the president "can do anything at this point." President-elect Joe Biden could immediately reverse most moves from Trump after his inauguration, which is nine days away.

"Any executive order he puts out will be undone, there's no more regulatory road he can go down with the [Federal Communications Commission]," Bovard said. "I don't know what else can be done."

The Trump administration has already launched significant antitrust investigations and lawsuits into the major platforms, including Google and Facebook. The president signed a social media executive order that went largely ignored by the FCC, Federal Trade Commission and executive branch. (FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed to Protocol last week that he would not move forward with a rule-making on Section 230, one of the executive order's central requests.) And Trump lost his political clout on Capitol Hill virtually overnight last week: As Democrats took back the Senate, Republican senators condemned his involvement in the riots on Capitol Hill, which resulted in five deaths.

Trump won't be able to push through a Section 230 repeal at the eleventh hour as his top allies in Congress are enduring their own controversies over their refusal to certify the Electoral College vote. Though Trumpworld advisers, including Trump's former campaign manager Brad Parscale, are newly calling for antitrust reform to beat back the unprecedented power of the platforms, serious efforts to reform the antitrust laws hit roadblocks from Republicans, including Trump ally Rep. Jim Jordan, last year.

Trump is expected to make a public statement about Big Tech this week, two sources familiar with conversations at the White House told Protocol, though it's unclear what the medium or message would be. He's been suspended from Facebook, Twitter and many other social networks. (There's always cable news, though.)

There's a number of levers he could try to pull, experts said. After all, he is still the most powerful political leader in the world, with access to a range of unilateral executive powers that he's tapped throughout his presidency.

It's within his power to sign an executive order barring federal agencies from using Twitter and Facebook, for example, though agencies have largely ignored the last social media executive order's request to pull back their ad spending from major social media platforms.

"The main power at his disposal is still executive orders," said Daniel Castro, vice president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a tech-funded think tank. But any effort to pull federal agencies off of social media likely would prove a bigger headache for the government than for the platforms. "It would be disruptive, it would cause confusion, it would be trending on Twitter, but it wouldn't cause any permanent impact, especially because the Biden administration would probably ask them just to undo those changes," Castro said.

Trump could tap his Justice Department to bring a splashy lawsuit against Twitter or Facebook for censoring him. That would've been easier before former Trump loyalist Attorney General Bill Barr resigned amid escalating tensions with the White House last month. And a lawsuit against any of the tech platforms would immediately face the near-insurmountable roadblock of Section 230.

A lawsuit "wouldn't be quick," said Ellen Goodman, a professor at Rutgers University who specializes in information policy law. "And as long as they have 230 immunity, it won't succeed."

Trump could model a lawsuit against the platforms after PragerU's suit against YouTube, in which the conservative group claimed that YouTube violated the Lanham Act, which protects against misleading advertising, when it filtered out PragerU's videos. That attempt was shot down by a judge who said YouTube, a private company, isn't bound by the First Amendment and can therefore remove any content that its policies deem offensive.

There's a nuclear option that Trump could turn to, which some policymakers have been warning about for years: Under Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1934, the president is empowered to to shut down or take control of "any facility or station for wire communication" if he declares that there is a threat of war in the U.S.

"They could claim Parler is being blocked from Google's service and that's a disruption," said Berin Szóka, president and founder of TechFreedom, a tech think tank. "It has not been used, so it's a little hard to know exactly how far the president could go."

But there is no indication that Trump or his advisers have considered that option, or any other aggressive move that could actually harm the tech platforms, especially beyond Jan. 20.

Trump has signaled that he's interested in setting up his own social media network to compete with the platforms that booted him this week. That long-shot effort would likely require enormous amounts of money, time and resources, especially given that he'd likely have to own every part of the internet stack that his network would rely on to ensure it isn't kicked offline. "Trump would have to have a cable company, his own web servers, his own DNS provider, his own version of Cloudflare," Goodman said.

Trump is the most powerful politician in the world, but ultimately, he may be no match for the tech platforms.

Big Tech benefits from Biden’s sweeping immigration actions

Tim Cook and Sundar Pichai praised President Biden's immigration actions, which read like a tech industry wishlist.

Newly-inaugurated President Joe Biden signed two immigration-related executive orders on Wednesday.

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Immediately after being sworn in as president Wednesday, Joe Biden signed two pro-immigration executive orders and delivered an immigration bill to Congress that reads like a tech industry wishlist. The move drew enthusiastic praise from tech leaders, including Apple CEO Tim Cook and Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai.

President Biden nullified several of former-President Trump's most hawkish immigration policies. His executive orders reversed the so-called "Muslim ban" and instructed the attorney general and the secretary of Homeland Security to preserve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program, which the Trump administration had sought to end. He also sent an expansive immigration reform bill to Congress that would provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented individuals and make it easier for foreign U.S. graduates with STEM degrees to stay in the United States, among other provisions.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

'Woke tech' and 'the new slave power': Conservatives gather for Vegas summit

An agenda for the event, hosted by the Claremont Institute, listed speakers including U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute. The speakers include U.S. CTO Michael Kratsios and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, as well as a who's-who of far-right provocateurs.

Photo: David Vives/Unsplash

Conservative investors, political operatives, right-wing writers and Trump administration officials are quietly meeting in Las Vegas this weekend to discuss topics including China, "woke tech" and "the new slave power," according to four people who were invited to attend or speak at the event as well as a copy of the agenda obtained by Protocol.

The so-called "Digital Statecraft Summit" was organized by the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank that says its mission is to "restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life." A list of speakers for the event includes a combination of past and current government officials as well as a who's who of far-right provocateurs. One speaker, conservative legal scholar John Eastman, rallied the president's supporters at a White House event before the Capitol Hill riot earlier this month. Some others have been associated with racist ideologies.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Politics

Silicon Valley is cracking down on Congress

Big Tech's pause on PAC contributions highlights how powerful it's become.

Democrats are particularly frustrated by Facebook, Google and Microsoft's decision to halt PAC contributions altogether, rather than targeting particular Republican lawmakers.

Photo: Tobias Hase/Getty Images

Congress has failed to act on every opportunity it had to seriously rein in the power of Big Tech over the last several years. Negotiations over a federal privacy bill fell apart last year, antitrust reform hit partisan headwinds and every debate over content moderation since 2016 has devolved into a theatrical yelling match that left the parties more divided over solutions than ever.

And now, the bigger-than-ever Silicon Valley is flexing its muscles with impunity as companies cut off violent extremists and wield the power of their political donations, acting more like a government than the U.S. government itself. They're leaving Republicans and Democrats more frustrated and powerless than ever in their wake.

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Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

We need Section 230 now more than ever

For those who want to see less of the kind of content that led to the storming of the Capitol, Section 230 may be unsatisfying, but it's the most the Constitution will permit.

Even if certain forms of awful speech could be made unlawful, requiring tech sites to clean it up would be even more constitutionally difficult.

Photo: Angel Xavier Viera-Vargas

Many conservatives are outraged that Twitter has banned President Trump, calling it "censorship" and solemnly invoking the First Amendment. In fact, the First Amendment gives Twitter an absolute right to ban Trump — just as it protects Simon & Schuster's right not to publish Sen. Josh Hawley's planned book, "The Tyranny of Big Tech."

The law here is clear. In 1974, the Supreme Court said newspapers can't be forced to carry specific content in the name of "fairness," despite the alleged consolidation of "the power to inform the American people and shape public opinion." The Court had upheld such Fairness Doctrine mandates for broadcasters in 1969 only because the government licenses use of publicly owned airwaves. But since 1997, the Court has held that digital media enjoys the same complete protection of the First Amendment as newspapers. "And whatever the challenges of applying the Constitution to ever-advancing technology," wrote Justice Antonin Scalia in 2011, "'the basic principles of freedom of speech and the press, like the First Amendment's command, do not vary' when a new and different medium for communication appears."

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Berin Szóka

Berin Szóka (@BerinSzoka) is president of TechFreedom (@TechFreedom), a technology policy think tank in Washington, DC.

Politics

Trump got all he needed from Twitter. Now, he still has all the power.

President Trump used Twitter to become the most powerful man in the world. Now, that power is his to keep.

Trump became the most powerful man in the world thanks to Twitter. Now that he's banned, he'll take that power with him.

Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

On Friday night, Twitter announced that it was forever banning President Trump from the digital podium where he conducted his presidency and where, for more than a decade, he built an alternate reality where what he said was always the truth.

There are moral arguments for not doing business with the guy who provoked a violent mob to invade the U.S. Capitol, leaving several people dead. There have been moral arguments for years for not doing business with the guy who spent most of his early mornings and late nights filling the site with a relentless stream of pithy, all-caps conspiracy theories about everything from Barack Obama's birthplace to the 2020 election. There are also moral arguments against tech companies muzzling the president of the United States at all.

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Issie Lapowsky
Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is a senior reporter at Protocol, covering the intersection of technology, politics, and national affairs. Previously, she was a senior writer at Wired, where she covered the 2016 election and the Facebook beat in its aftermath. Prior to that, Issie worked as a staff writer for Inc. magazine, writing about small business and entrepreneurship. She has also worked as an on-air contributor for CBS News and taught a graduate-level course at New York University’s Center for Publishing on how tech giants have affected publishing. Email Issie.
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