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FCC Moves to 'Clarify' Law That Trump Wants to Change to Regulate Big Tech


FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

A Trump administration effort to alter a US law that protects social media companies from being held accountable for the content their users post may be gaining steam. The Federal Communications Commission is now claiming it has the power to interpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and intends on clarifying the law’s scope. 

On Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced he plans on taking up the matter, following a request from the White House. “The commission’s general counsel has informed me that the FCC has the legal authority to interpret Section 230. Consistent with this advice, I intend to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify its meaning,” he wrote in a statement. 

Under Section 230, US internet companies are protected from civil lawsuits over any illegal or controversial user-generated content they end up hosting. The company simply has to make a “good faith” effort to take the content down. 

However, President Trump is no fan of the law. In May, he threatened to regulate US social media companies after Twitter fact-checked two tweets he made about mail-in voting that the company deemed misleading. 

In response, Trump claimed Twitter was out to censor him. “Republicans feel that Social Media Platforms totally silence conservatives voices,” he said at the time. “We will strongly regulate, or close them down, before we can ever allow this to happen.”

The president’s solution involves removing or changing Section 230, which he claims has helped internet companies unfairly gain a monopoly over the internet. In May, Trump signed an executive order calling on the FCC to clarify the law’s scope, and whether the legal protections should apply to social media platforms conspiring in bad faith. 

On Thursday, Chairman Pai said “members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed serious concerns about the prevailing interpretation of the immunity set forth in Section 230.

“There is bipartisan support in Congress to reform the law,” Pai added, while noting: “Earlier this week, US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out that courts have relied upon ‘policy and purpose arguments to grant sweeping protections to Internet platforms’ that appear to go far beyond the actual text of the provision.’”

Pai then went on to claim many people “advance an overly broad interpretation” of Section 230, which can also shield social media companies from consumer protection regulations. At the same time, Section 230 prevents internet companies from being classified as a “publisher or speaker,” meaning they’re not liable for the content they host. But Pai is indicating he doesn’t agree with how the law is being interpreted.

“Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech,” he added. “But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”

The FCC declined to comment on the rule-making, so it remains unclear when the Republican-majority commission will take on the matter. But not everyone agrees with Pai’s thinking. 

“We’re in the midst of an election. The President’s Executive Order on Section 230 was politically motivated and legally unsound. The FCC shouldn’t do the President’s bidding here,” tweeted Democrat FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks. 

US Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), one of the co-authors behind Section 230, also objected. “The FCC does not have the authority to rewrite the law, and Ajit Pai can’t appoint himself commissioner of the speech police,” Wyden tweeted. Last month, Sen. Wyden also submitted a formal comment to the FCC, arguing only Congress has the power to amend the law. 

Trump’s goal with amending Section 230 is to force US social media companies into being a completely neutral platform when it comes to content moderation. However, social media companies say removing the law would only hurt the internet ecosystem for all. 

“Repealing or limiting section 230 will have the opposite effect. It will restrict more speech online, not less,” Facebook told PCMag back in May. “By exposing companies to potential liability for everything that billions of people around the world say, this would penalize companies that choose to allow controversial speech and encourage platforms to censor anything that might offend anyone.”



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