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Leaked draft details Trump’s likely attack on technology giants

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Leaked draft details Trump’s likely attack on technology giants

Enlarge (credit: Aurich Lawson / Getty)

The Trump Administration is putting the final touches on a sweeping executive order designed to punish online platforms for perceived anti-conservative bias. Legal scholar Kate Klonick obtained a draft of the document and posted it online late Wednesday night.

"In a country that has long cherished the freedom of expression, we cannot allow a limited number of online platforms to hand-pick the speech that Americans may access and convey online," the draft executive order states. "This practice is fundamentally un-American and anti-democratic. When large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power."

The document claims that online platforms have been "flagging content as inappropriate even though it does not violate any stated terms of service, making unannounced and unexplained changes to policies that have the effect of disfavoring certain viewpoints, and deleting content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse."

The order then lays out several specific policy initiatives that will purportedly promote "free and open debate on the Internet."

Trump could ask the FCC to clarify Section 230

First up is Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The 1996 law gives online service providers like Google, Facebook, and Twitter broad immunity from liability for content posted by users. These protections are available to anyone who runs a website—from YouTube and Facebook to a personal blog with a comment section. But in recent years, a number of Republican politicians have started referring to Section 230 as a special privilege granted to big technology platforms.

Trump's draft executive order would ask the Federal Communications Commission to clarify Section 230—specifically a provision shielding companies from liability when they remove objectionable content. The provision requires that takedowns be made "in good faith," and the Trump Administration wants the FCC to clarify situations in which takedowns are not made in good faith but are instead "deceptive, pretextual, or inconsistent with a provider's terms of service" or those undertaken with inadequate notice, explanation, or opportunity for appeal.

It's unclear if the FCC has the authority to interpret Section 230, which does not explicitly give the FCC rulemaking power. However, Section 230 is technically part of the Communications Act, and the courts have traditionally given the FCC broad discretion to clarify portions of the act—so it's possible FCC rulemaking here could pass legal muster.

However, the FCC is an independent agency not directly accountable to the president. FCC chairman Ajit Pai has not traditionally been a fan of regulating technology platforms, and he has sometimes refused to follow through on Trump policy requests. So the FCC might decide not to act on the Trump administration petition—or at least to delay action on it until after the 2020 election.

Ad spending and unfair consumer practices

Next, the executive order directs federal agencies to review their ad spending to ensure that no ad dollars go to online platforms that "violate free speech principles." The head of each executive branch agency would be required to review ad spending on online platforms and consider whether those platforms imposed "viewpoint-based speech restrictions"—and if so, whether the agency could legally re-direct their ad dollars elsewhere.

Another provision asks the Federal Trade Commission to examine whether online platforms are restricting speech "in ways that do not align with those entities' public representations about those practices"—in other words, whether the companies' actual content moderation practices are consistent with their terms of service. The executive order suggests that an inconsistency between policy and practice could constitute an "unfair and deceptive practice" under consumer protection laws.

Trump would also ask the FTC to consider whether large online platforms like Facebook and Twitter have become so big that they've effectively become "the modern public square"—and hence governed by the First Amendment. Interestingly, the DC Circuit Appeals Court rejected this argument just yesterday in a case where a conservative activist argued that technology giants had violated her First Amendment rights. The court ruled that the First Amendment only limits the actions of governments, not private companies. It seems likely that the courts would reach a similar conclusion here.

Finally, the order directs US Attorney General William Barr to organize a working group of state attorneys general to consider whether online platforms' policies violated state consumer protection laws.

As we said before, the leaked order is a draft. The White House has signaled that Trump will sign a final order today, but it's possible that the final draft will differ from the leaked draft.

One thing we can say for certain is that the order will lead to a lot of litigation. If the Trump administration follows through on these proposals, we can expect the technology giants to argue that several of them violate their own First Amendment rights. It's unlikely that any of them will have a significant impact on the technology giants before this November's election. If Donald Trump loses re-election, the executive order would likely be rolled back. If Trump wins a second term, we can expect four more years of bitter conflict with Silicon Valley.

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tedgould
8 days ago
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Finding humorous that Trump thinks making technology companies more liable for user content will result in them taking down fewer of his tweets.
Texas, USA
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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton warns Austin, San Antonio, Dallas to loosen coronavirus restrictions

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Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke at the 2017 Texas Federation of Republican Women Convention in Dallas.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton spoke at the 2017 Texas Federation of Republican Women Convention in Dallas. Laura Buckman for The Texas Tribune

Escalating tensions between Texas state officials and the leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton's office warned officials in Austin, Dallas and San Antonio on Tuesday to roll back “unlawful” local emergency orders that impose stricter coronavirus restrictions than the state has issued — and hinted that there will be lawsuits if they do not.

As he begins to reopen the Texas economy in phases, Gov. Greg Abbott has allowed a statewide stay-at-home order to lapse and certain businesses to reopen at limited capacity — 25% in the state’s urban areas. While businesses have the choice of whether to reopen, Abbott has said cities and municipalities do not: His order supersedes any from local officials who wish to extend strict social distancing protocols and keep their local industries shuttered longer.

But some local officials, whose disagreements with Abbott have hardly disappeared as the state contends with the coronavirus pandemic, have put out orders that are stricter than the state’s, directing individuals to wear masks in public and instructing them to shelter in place.

Those directives are unlawful and can’t stand, the attorney general’s office wrote in letters to Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins.

“We trust you will act quickly to correct these mistakes to avoid further confusion and litigation challenging these unconstitutional and unlawful restrictions,” wrote Ryan Vassar, an attorney for the state, in three similar letters to city and county leaders.

The letter says that local officials had overstepped in restricting which essential businesses could open. In Dallas County, Jenkins declared recently that law offices could not yet open; a San Antonio-area mandate required essential businesses to provide masks to employees. Both are “invalid,” according to the attorney general’s office.

And local orders to shelter in place are “unenforceable,” Paxton’s office argued, because they go beyond Abbott’s requirement, which is merely to minimize social gatherings among people who do not live in the same household.

In Dallas, Austin and San Antonio, public safety orders stated that individuals “shall” cover their faces. Abbott encouraged Texans to wear face masks but did not require it, and said no local authorities could impose civil or criminal penalties against individuals who refused. The attorney general's office's letters insisted that local governments did not have the authority to issue any mask requirement, even if they didn’t threaten fines or jail time.

“Your orders purport to strip Texans of their agency,” Vassar wrote. “Although your orders ‘require’ individuals to wear masks when they leave their home, they are free to choose whether to wear one or not.”

Local officials shot back that Paxton’s letters mischaracterize their restrictions, which they said complied with Abbott's. Jenkins said in a statement that he “intentionally modeled the public health guidelines based on the Governor’s recommendations, never imagining he did not want his own guidelines followed.” San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said the attorney general's letter labors to "construe inconsistencies where there are none" and "undermines the language of the Governor’s order that allows local officials to facilitate implementation and enforcement."

Adler said, “Up to this point, we have avoided the naked politicization of the virus crisis. I will not follow the AG down that road.”

The letters also took issue with local restrictions on religious services. State officials have allowed churches, synagogues, mosques and other houses of worship to stay open provided they follow certain guidelines. Local restrictions on Austin’s Travis County went further by stating, for example, that services “should” be provided remotely and any in-person staffing should be limited to no more than 10 people in the room.

The Austin letter also took issue with a local policy that bars religious institutions from discrimination based on sexual orientation in the hiring process.

Disclosure: Steve Adler, a former Texas Tribune board chairman, has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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tedgould
24 days ago
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Big government Republicans strike again against local governance.
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What Last Weekend Looked Like as Dallas Reopened

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Last weekend was a trial run. Texas reopened, and it was a test case of a gradually reawakened public sphere. We knew the numbers of COVID-19 cases in Dallas were not on the decline. We knew certain restaurateurs were opening based on a thicket of considerations. We cannot seem to properly hold socially distant picnics or go on socially distant runs. It was bound to be a tricky landscape. […]

The post What Last Weekend Looked Like as Dallas Reopened appeared first on D Magazine.

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tedgould
31 days ago
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While I've been critical of folks saying that any reopening is a crime, clearly partial reopening only works if people take it seriously. Which it seems they aren't. And that clearly is going to cause more harm than good.
Texas, USA
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NIH abruptly cuts coronavirus research funding, alarming scientists

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The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 17, 2020.

Enlarge / The Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province on April 17, 2020. (credit: Getty | Hector Retamal)

Researchers expressed alarm this week after the National Institutes of Health abruptly cancelled funding for a long-standing research project by US and Chinese scientists to examine how coronaviruses leap from bats to humans, potentially causing devastating pandemics—such as the one we are currently experiencing by a coronavirus genetically linked to those found in bats.

The funding cut could set back critical research into preventing such disease spread, scientists say. They also expressed dismay that the decision was prompted by unfounded conspiracy theories and what some see as a wider attempt by the Trump administration to deflect criticism of its handling of the pandemic by blaming China for unleashing the disease.

The NIH has not provided a clear explanation for its move to cancel the funds, which occurred April 24 and was first reported by Politico Monday, April 27. However, in emails exchanges published April 30 by Science magazine, it is clear that the NIH was motivated by conspiracy theories that allege—without evidence—that the virus was somehow released by Chinese researchers in Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the pandemic began.

The grant that is now going unfunded is titled “Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence,” and it was written by EcoHealth Alliance, Inc., a non-profit based in New York that collaborates with a leading Chinese researcher who studies bat coronaviruses in Wuhan. The NIH initially funded the work in 2014, providing $3.1 million for five years. The NIH then renewed the grant in 2019 after the work received an outstanding peer-review score, according to Science.

The magazine reported that $599,000 of the initial grant money went to Shi Zhengli, a virologist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV) who collaborates with EcoHealth. Shi and her colleagues have collected more than 15,000 biological samples from wild bats and received a portion of the NIH funding to do genetic studies that would identify coronaviruses at high risk of jumping to humans. The grant also supported studies testing the blood of people living near bat caves in southern China, to see if the residents had been infected with bat coronaviruses.

“The reason our grant was renewed for five years is because our work is so important in helping prevent pandemics,”  Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, told Science. The project had generated at least 20 published research studies and several genetic sequences of bat coronaviruses, some of which have been used to help vet remdesivir, a potential drug therapy against COVID-19.

Lab origins

However, amid the pandemic, conspiracy theories have festered online that Chinese researchers were responsible for the release of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19. First, there was speculation that it was a man-made virus, potentially one intended for biowarfare. When genetic analysis clearly contradicted that notion, speculation shifted to suggesting that it was a natural virus that accidentally escaped a laboratory in Wuhan, potentially, the WIV where Shi works. The idea has been bolstered by a column in the Washington Post that US Department of State officials had vague safety concerns about the lab back in 2018.

Though researchers can’t completely rule out the possibility that SARS-CoV-2 escaped from a lab, coronavirus experts have consistently said it is far more likely that SARS-CoV-2 leapt from wild bats or other wild animals to humans in a natural spillover event, similar to how SARS-CoV-2’s coronavirus relatives caused disease. That is, the coronaviruses behind SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) both hopped naturally from wild bats to other animals before making their way to humans to cause disease.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that SARS-CoV-2 was among Shi’s collection and there’s no indication that any researchers or the NIH was concerned about safety issues at the lab, according to Science.

Politics

Still, the unfounded idea has continued, reportedly with pressure from the Trump Administration to find evidence to substantiate it. Trump said on Thursday that he had seen evidence that SARS-CoV-2 came from WIV but was “not allowed” to say more.

In an initial email to EcoHealth on April 19, Michael Lauer, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research, reportedly wrote:

The scientific community believes that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 jumped from bats to humans likely in Wuhan where the COVID-19 pandemic began. There are now allegations that the current crisis was precipitated by the release from Wuhan Institute of Virology of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. Given these concerns, we are pursuing suspension of Wuhan Institute of Virology from participation in federal programs.

In a subsequent email on April 24, Lauer wrote that the NIH has “elected to terminate the project ‘Understanding the Risk of Bat Coronavirus Emergence’… for convenience.”

“This grant was funded as a discretionary grant as outlined in the NIH Grants Policy Statement which states that the decision not to award a grant, or to award a grant at a particular funding level, is at the discretion of the agency, in accordance with NIH’s dual review system,” the email went on. “At this time, NIH does not believe that the current project outcomes align with the program goals and agency priorities.”

Dennis Carroll, who recently retired as director of the emerging threats division of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), noted to Science that “There’s a culture of attacking really critical science for cheap political gain.”

In a statement to Politico, EcoHealth noted that “We work in the United States and in over 25 countries with institutions that have been pre-approved by federal funding agencies to do scientific research critical to preventing pandemics. We are planning to talk with NIH to understand the rationale behind their decision.”

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tedgould
34 days ago
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The defunding of science to solve the problems we are having RIGHT NOW needs to get more attention.
Texas, USA
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Biden Is Losing the Internet. Does That Matter?

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The coronavirus has forced the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee into an all-digital campaign, and he’s struggling to break through.

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tedgould
50 days ago
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Sad explanation of what works on corporate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. I don't want a president that is successful on either.
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New Zealand comic 'deeply sorry' for botched Jacinda Ardern cake

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Laura Daniel says it is not wise to “bake your heroes”, as her cake calamity is ridiculed online.
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tedgould
50 days ago
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The advice "don't bake your heros" works on so many levels
Texas, USA
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