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White House distances itself from reports that Trump could target Facebook, Google and Twitter with a new executive order

The Washington Post logoThe Washington Post 9/22/2018 Tony Romm, Josh Dawsey
President Trump waves as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP) © Alex Brandon/AP President Trump waves as he walks to Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House on Thursday. (Alex Brandon/AP)

The White House sought to distance itself Saturday from reports that President Trump is considering an executive order that would subject tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter to federal investigations for alleged political bias.

For weeks, top tech companies have been on edge, fearing that the Trump administration could seek to regulate the industry in response to the president’s tweets attacking social-media sites for silencing conservatives online. Their worst suspicions seemed to come true Friday night, with the emergence of a draft executive order that called for nearly every federal agency to study how companies like Facebook police their platforms and refer instances of “bias” to the Justice Department for further study.

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But three White House aides soon insisted they didn't write the draft order, didn't know where it came from, and generally found it to be unworkable policy anyway. One senior White House official confirmed the document had been floating around the White House but had not gone through the formal process, which is controlled by the staff secretary.

Asked about the document, Lindsay Walters, the deputy White House press secretary, said of the digital-age ‘whodunit’ on Saturday: “Although the White House is concerned about the conduct of online platforms and their impact on society, this document is not the result of an official White House policymaking process.”

For months, companies like Facebook, Google and Twitter have grappled with allegations of anti-conservative bias from the country’s top Republicans. In tweets, Trump repeatedly has charged without evidence that tech companies deliberately silence right-leaning viewers and even rig search results to show negative stories about conservatives or hide their accounts altogether. He has frequently told allies that bias against conservatives is a central issue to his supporters, and his campaign has used the allegations as fodder for fundraising in recent weeks.

On Capitol Hill, meanwhile, top Republicans have mounted their own campaign against Silicon Valley, even forcing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify at a recent hearing about accusations of censorship. GOP leaders have threatened to force Google’s leading executives to do the same.

But the political attacks morphed into a new, real threat of stinging regulation earlier this month, when the Justice Department announced it would gather state attorneys general on Sept. 25 to discuss the tech industry, its filtering practices online and the implications for antitrust. For Facebook, Google, Twitter and their peers, the session seemed poised to open the door for the federal and state government to coordinate and begin fresh investigations of their business practices.

All month, those companies' lobbyists also had been buzzing about a potential White House executive order that aimed “to protect competition and small businesses from bias in online platforms,” according to a copy of the document obtained by The Washington Post. If signed by the president, it would task federal agencies — including the independent Justice Department — to “investigate/and or prosecute” companies that use their “market power in a way that harms consumers.” The draft document ultimately leaked Friday, published by Bloomberg News, to whom a White House official said it was under consideration.

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, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The document has floated to tech companies such as Facebook and lawyers at white-shoe firms around Washington. In fact, the first that many at OSTP had even heard of an executive order came from an email sent by an unlikely source: Yelp, the reviews site. The company long has attacked Google for abusing its market power, albeit by limiting the reach of some of its competitors in search results and not political bias. Still, Luther Lowe, senior vice president for policy at Yelp, contacted multiple White House aides in September with the draft executive order, according to two White House aides and a copy of an email shared with The Post.

Reached this weekend, Lowe did not address whether he wrote or commissioned the executive order. “Far from riding the current tech backlash, Yelp has been consistently critical of Google for actual bias in search results — in local search, for their own competitive benefit,” he said in a statement. “We believe this anti-competitive conduct — biasing their results in favor of their own house properties — to be a violation of US antitrust law and we have been urging both political parties in Congress, the Administration and regulators to investigate and prosecute this illegal bias.”

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