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This image is from when Barack Obama (the then serving president) thanked Reddit for helping protect the open internet.

Scan of a handwritten note signed by Barack Obama

Thanks Redditors! Wish I could upvote every one of you for helping keep the internet open and free!

My question, if this was taken at face-value, and the President really wanted to force a private company to help him apply a blanket Upvote to everybody on Reddit, why could/can't he, and what would he have to do to accomplish this?

I'm pretty sure this isn't allowed by Reddit's policies given it's a form of "vote cheating" (albeit the rules are oddly shaky for a blanket Upvote).

I know realistically nothing about the extent of power a President has over the functions of a private company, so I was hoping someone could break down the various methods the President could go about giving an Upvote to every user on Reddit.

I would prefer answers that avoided simply asking nicely (given not every President has had the same rapport with the company behind Reddit so lets assume they don't want this to happen) and instead focused on the steps and barriers the President would face before being provided with a hopefully enormous glorious green button. Or, if such an mandate is actually legally impossible given the checks and balances I've heard about.

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    Not sure how this is relevant? The former President was clearly expressing his gratitude for their support, not actually stating he wished to grant an upvote to everyone. – Marisa Nov 9 '17 at 13:34
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    While this particular example is of course ridiculous, it is IMO still an interesting thought experiment to evaluate what the president can and can not do. – Philipp Nov 9 '17 at 13:51
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    This is a hypothetical based on a misinterpretation. I can't tell if it's too narrow or too broad. Either way, not really a reality-based question. – user1530 Nov 9 '17 at 15:54
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    I'm clearly missing something--the only barrier preventing the President from upvoting a large number of posts is his personal time, right? So what action, exactly, would he be requesting Reddit to take on his behalf in this hypothetical? It sounds like he would basically need someone to write a bot to upvote all posts in a particular thread using the POTUS Reddit account, and ask Reddit not to consider it a TOS violation but merely a time-saving measure on his part. Is that what you're describing by "mandate upvotes"? – Kyle Strand Nov 9 '17 at 19:12
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    Read this again and imagine this was written by a private citizen. It's a derivation of a common form of expression of no political nature. – Ambo100 Nov 9 '17 at 20:34
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A president has the power, under the general terms of Article 2, to instruct the various federal agencies how to act, and how to spend the money that they already have. Any such order is then subject to scrutiny by Congress and the SCOTUS.

The ability of the President to instruct a private company is limited. In 1952, with a steel strike threatened, President Truman signed an order renationalising the steel mills. This was overturned by the Supreme Court (Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer), who ruled that even though the President had legitimate national security concerns (steel was essential for the Korean war effort), he lacked the authority to do so. The court decided that there are limits to what the constitution calls "executive power", and that seizing property is beyond that limit.

In this case of upvoting all redditors, the president is not attempting to take complete control of a private company, but he is attempting to exert authority over a company to act in a way other than what they see as their best business practice. And the indication of Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer is that the President lacks this power.

However, the president would be free to create a Department of Reddit Upvoting and get federal employees to log onto Reddit and start upvoting everyone. That would be the President directing the executive how to act. Congress would be able to review this and prevent it by refusing to fund such a department, or simply overruling the order.

The President also has various tools that he could use to put pressure on a private company. He can make business difficult for a company while "asking nicely": "Give a upvote to everyone and I won't send the IRS round to audit your books every Monday" but probably less crude. The president has a lot of soft power so a bit of carrot and stick might well be the best strategy.

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    Would the actions of the Department of Reddit Upvoting be against the Reddit terms of use? – stannius Nov 9 '17 at 16:51
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    @stannius yes, but good luck to them if they want to enforce it. – hobbs Nov 9 '17 at 17:58
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    @stannius Yes, and by the Reddit terms of use, the Reddit admins would be perfectly within their legal rights to delete the accounts. Of course, that goes back to the final paragraph - the President could make life/business very difficult for the admins if they were to do so. – Mego Nov 9 '17 at 18:12
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    "Give a upvote to everyone and I won't send the IRS round to audit your books every Monday" - I'm pretty sure that's illegal. People have gotten into trouble for that sort of thing. – reirab Nov 9 '17 at 18:54
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    @reirab I think you're right, but the idea of a "Dept of Reddit Upvoting" is amusing for me. Its probably illegal for a president to do this, its certainly unethical, but the general idea is that the president can exert soft power in various ways. The president can't force a company do a anything, except comply with the law. The president can influence and manipulate. – James K Nov 9 '17 at 20:13
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TL;DR

The President very likely couldn't do it without (a) the cooperation of Reddit's owners, or (b) an Act of Congress.

Explanation

Let us suppose items (a) and (b) above are not forthcoming.

In attempting to give orders to Reddit, the President would effectively be taking control of a private company by executive order.

There is a closely relevant precedent for this. In 1952, President Truman ordered the Department of Commerce to take control of steel mills, in order to halt a strike and ensure steel production for the Korean War. In Youngstown Sheet & Tube Company vs. Sawyer, the Supreme Court ruled Truman had acted unlawfully and exceeded his authority.

Conversely, there are ample precedents for Congress taking control of a private company. For example, the US government took a controlling interest in General Motors in the auto industry bailout of 2009. So a "Reddit Upvote Act" would be sufficient to place a big green button at the disposal of POTUS.

Caveats

  • I Am Not A Lawyer, and there may be one or more Acts of Congress which could be construed as giving POTUS authority to give orders to Reddit.

  • POTUS has many potential ways of making life unpleasant for Reddit's owners if they refuse to accede to a polite request from the White House -- although most of them would be open to challenge in the courts.

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    No, congress did not "take" control of GM, GM voluntarily conceded some control as part of an agreement to get cash. And of course congressional acts must also be consistent with other laws passed by Congress as well as the constitution. – James K Polk Nov 11 '17 at 1:31
  • @JamesKPolk Acts of congress can conflict with other acts of congress, that much isn't a problem. Laws can be amended by other laws, or the new laws can just say things like "notwithstanding any other provision of law". But the Constitution would be a huge problem for any such law. – D M Nov 11 '17 at 5:11
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  1. The president (or anyone) could request that Congress pass a law instructing Reddit to award each person on that page one upvote.

    Either the House or Senate would have to mark up a bill, pass it and send to the other, agree with the other on language or convince the other to pass the bill as stands, and then send it to the president for a signature. In this thought experiment, the president would presumably sign it, so we don't have to worry about overriding a veto.

    Reddit could either comply or it could raise a constitutional issue. If it does not, someone else might do so. It would go to court and might be seen as a form of forced speech (against the first amendment). I don't know of a definitely controlling precedent, so it's not clear what a court would do in that case. They might apply a free speech precedent. Or they might apply a limitation. Note that four of nine justices said that free speech does not apply to corporations.

  2. The president could create an account and qualify it to make upvotes. The president could then assign an intern or other employee to upvote every post on that page, complying with the normal rules. This might take some time if Reddit has vote limits like Stack Exchange does.

  3. The president could request a law from Congress that more generically creates a presidential upvote power. Such a law could be the easy version of the intern method. It might better meet constitutional limitations, particularly if it allows Reddit to indicate that the presidential upvote has been applied. It would be a shortcut version of the intern method.

It's unclear if any of these methods might be constitutionally limited. The intern method seems the most likely to pass constitutional scrutiny and the specific bill the least likely. But all of these methods are working in a constitutional gray area. If Reddit resisted, they could block the intern method under their own rules. Mandating it could be constitutionally tricky. We won't really know until someone tries.

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    "We won't really know until someone tries." - Clearly, this is an important Constitutional question that needs an answer. Let's all elect Brythan as President so he can try. :) – reirab Nov 9 '17 at 19:01
  • I don't think the unconstitutionality of #1 or #3 is "unclear" or in a "gray area"; it's unconstitutional. It fails even the "rational basis" test; the law has no legitimate purpose. But since free speech is involved (votes are opinions!) it would likely have to pass "strict scrutiny" to be found constitutional, and there's no way that's happening. – D M Nov 11 '17 at 5:06

protected by Philipp Nov 9 '17 at 19:06

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