October 19, 2020
Affirming the FCC’s authority over social media companies, chair Ajit Pai has launched an official effort to “clarify” how Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act applies to them. “Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech — but they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters,” he said. President Trump has often called for social media companies to be stripped of Section 230 protections.
Variety reports that, “as currently interpreted, Section 230 grants Internet companies broad legal protections for user-posted content on their services.”
In May, Trump, aggravated by Facebook and Twitter’s fact-checking and blocking his posts, issued an executive order to revoke Section 230 protections for these platforms if they “censor” his speech. Trump and other GOP politicians and right-wing commentators claim that social media companies are biased against conservatives.
Pai, who claimed that social media companies are shielded by an “overly broad interpretation” of Section 230, said the FCC’s general counsel told him he has authority to interpret it.
The issue came to the fore last week when Facebook and Twitter “thwarted the spread of the New York Post’s disputed article about Hunter Biden … based on information provided by Rudy Giuliani that was harvested from a laptop abandoned in a Delaware computer-repair shop.” The Senate Judiciary Committee plans to subpoena Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey to testify on October 23 about “why his company blocked users from tweeting or retweeting” the story.
On October 28, the Senate Commerce Committee convened a hearing at which Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, Alphabet and Google chief executive Sundar Pichai and Dorsey will testify. Attorney General William Barr sent draft legislation last month to Congress to “limit the protections under Section 230.”
Two lawsuits have been filed to block the Trump administration’s efforts to annul Section 230 protections, one from the Center for Democracy & Technology and another by “a coalition of advocacy groups who claimed the order is retaliatory and is an attempt to inhibit voters’ right to receive information about the election.”
In response to Pai’s effort to “clarify” Section 230, one FCC commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat appointed by President Obama, countered that, “the timing of this effort is absurd … the FCC has no business being the President’s speech police.” ACLU senior counsel Kate Ruane stated that, “the FCC cannot rewrite acts of Congress to suit its whims.”
“Section 230 is critical to protecting free speech online and the FCC has no authority to change it, especially not in ways that will undermine free expression,” she added. “Also, the FCC can’t and shouldn’t dictate content moderation practices. The First Amendment protects us from government control over what we can tweet, post, and say online — this includes respecting the editorial decisions of the platforms themselves.”
The effort could fail should Joe Biden defeat Trump, but even he has “called for repealing the protections Section 230 affords social media platforms.”
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