Former US President Donald Trump has announced that he will file a lawsuit against technology giants Facebook, Twitter, Google, and those companies’ bosses. Trump was banned mainly from those social media platforms after the storming of the Capitol early this year.
He accuses them of silencing him and demands that his accounts be reinstated quickly. “He doesn’t stand a chance,” thinks professor of law and technology at KU Leuven Peggy Valcke. Trump is supported in his legal action by the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization that stood behind his policies.
“Along with the America First Policy Institute, I am today filing a major class-action lawsuit against tech giants Facebook, Google and Twitter and their bosses Mark Zuckerberg, Sundar Pichai and Jack Dorsey as its chief executive officer,” the former president announced at his golf club.
Trump has long been at loggerheads with Facebook and Twitter over freedom of speech and censorship. After the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters, the former president was completely banned by Twitter, his main communication platform with more than 80 million followers. Facebook removed him for two years. Google’s video platform, YouTube, will only allow Trump again if it no longer sees a risk to public safety.
Trump accuses the platforms of silencing him. “We are asking the Federal Court of the Southern District of Florida to immediately end the illegal and outrageous censorship of social networking groups against Americans,” Trump said. “We demand the end of the enforced silence.”
“There is no better proof that Big Tech is out of control than the fact that they have banned the incumbent president of the United States from their platforms. If they can do that with me, they can do that with anyone.”
Trump expects to win the legal battle. But is that true? He doesn’t stand a chance, thinks Peggy Valcke, professor of law and technology at the KULeuven. “I suspect that he has had his lawyers thoroughly explore the case. And at first sight it seems to me that he is not entirely without a chance.”
However, Trump should not fence with the concept of censorship, because that is not what it is about legally. “It is often mentioned in the discussions that Trump has been censored, but that is not legally correct, because there has been no government decision to stop him from expressing his opinion,” Valcke said. After all, respect for human rights and freedom of expression is, in the first instance, an obligation that rests on states. “On the other hand, states also have a duty to provide a good legal framework so that human rights and freedom of expression are also respected in private relationships.”
And that legal framework, what does that look like in the United States? “Important is section 230 of the Communications Act, which is said to have enabled the Internet to flourish because it indemnifies intermediaries such as social media, as well as search engines, from liability for third-party content,” said Professor Valcke. “There is also a provision, the Good Samaritan clause, which says that when those intermediaries remove content from their platforms in good faith, they are released from liability by the alleged victim of that so-called censorship. That provision can therefore in some measure against the proceedings that Trump has initiated.”
On the other hand, Valcke says, the independent experts that Facebook itself has convened are also critical of the decision to ban Trump from those platforms for so long. “The rules about how long something like that can last are not clear. So Trump does have a chance there,” she says.
In summary: The decision to ban Trump from the platforms at the time – after the storming of the Capitol – may have been legitimate. But doing that indefinitely, or for a very long period after peace has returned, is more difficult.