For months, our Twitter-addicted and conspiracy-addled president has become increasingly convinced that just like the media, Silicon Valley tech companies he barely understands are out to get him. Claims that the largely West Coast-based tech world is secretly undermining the conservative movement have long been a right-wing bogeyman, but with Donald Trump leading the charge it’s been an open question whether he will use federal resources to crack down on them.
Well, the answer is still maybe. According to Bloomberg, the White House has drafted an executive order that would command “federal antitrust and law enforcement agencies” to investigate companies including Google, Facebook, and others. If signed, the order would instruct antitrust officials to “thoroughly investigate whether any online platform has acted in violation of the antitrust laws,” as well as ask other agencies to come up with recommendations on how to “protect competition among online platforms and address online platform bias.”
In order to maintain the pretense that this isn’t some kind of neo-witch-hunt designed for the sole purpose of punishing the president’s perceived enemies, the draft does not name any of the companies by name and contains an aside instructing investigators to respect the boundaries of law. It also frames Trump’s bullshit claims of anti-conservative bias as having something to do with anti-competition law. Bloomberg wrote:
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 adds that consumer harm — a key measure in antitrust investigations— could come “through the exercise of bias.”
The order’s preliminary status is 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.”
Again, there is ample evidence that this has absolutely nothing to do with genuine concern over whether companies like Google and Facebook have too much market power—which they do—and everything to do with a bad-faith effort to pressure them into using that power to benefit the president. There is no evidence that they are censoring conservative voices and lots to the contrary, which is why all the evidence Trump has offered up boils down to insinuation at best and more commonly outright lies and hoaxes.
In other words, what Trump hopes to accomplish when he does things like tweet out doctored videos claiming Google blacklisted his speeches or claim Twitter is “SHADOW BANNING” Republicans is create enough of a political headache for those companies that they cave and artificially boost pro-Trump content. The same would seem to go for siccing the regulatory hounds on them.
For the moment, the order is still a draft, and it’s unclear how serious the proposal is or whether someone at the White House is just indulging the president’s power fantasies. According to the Washington Post, senior aides are already distancing themselves from the proposal and denying knowledge of its existence, with one lawyer calling it “entirely insane”:
Aides at the White House said all week that the National Economic Council — which would have been tasked under the draft order to help agencies probe online bias — didn’t write it and didn’t know where it came from. Nor did the White House’s top tech policy hub, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, two White House sources said. Trump has often ordered aides to write executive orders that were later deemed unworkable, but another senior White House official said he had no knowledge of this one.
“It would be entirely insane,” said one lawyer with knowledge of the document.
The Post added that it’s possible the draft order originated from Google rival Yelp, whose senior vice president for policy Luther Lowe allegedly shopped around a copy of the order to White House aides earlier this month.
However, as Bloomberg noted, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is planning on briefing state attorneys general who are “already investigating the tech firms’ practices” on September 25th, and Pew data shows 85 percent of Republicans believe tech companies censor political speech. So this rabbit hole might fail to end anytime soon.