The Federal Communications Commission is inviting public comment on the Trump administration’s calls to crack down on legal liability protections that social media companies currently have for content posted by users. The agency opened public comment on a proposal Monday.
Trump signed an executive order in May asking the National Telecommunications and Formation Administration to petition the FCC to review Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the law that gives social media companies their legal protection. The president wants rules that’ll let the agency investigate complaints that social media companies discriminate against certain speech on their platforms.
The order followed Twitter’s decision to slap labels on two Trump tweets about mail-in voting, saying they contained “potentially misleading information.”
Last week, NTIA filed its petition with the FCC. And on Monday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency will seek comment on the petition.
“Longstanding rules require the agency to put such petitions out for public comment ‘promptly,’ and we will follow that requirement here,” he said in a statement.
The NTIA petition asks the FCC to define “information content provider” more broadly to include entities that make “editorial decisions that modify or alter content.”
Under that interpretation, social media companies like Facebook and Twitter would be treated as publishers responsible for information posted by their users. Also, under this interpretation, these sites would also lose legal protections from lawsuits filed against them for taking down or blocking offensive content.
The petition comes as liberals and conservatives complain about how social media companies moderate content on their platforms. Conservatives, led by the president, allege that their speech is being censored by Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, a claim the companies deny. Liberals say they’re equally troubled by the rampant flow of disinformation, including interference by foreign countries in the 2020 presidential election, and hate speech.
Still, it’s unclear if the FCC even has the authority to make calls about whether social media companies play fair. Any FCC action would likely be challenged in court. And of course, it’s also an awkward twist asking this Republican-led FCC, which has worked to deregulate the communications industry, to police content on social media sites.
So far, the FCC hasn’t indicated whether it supports NTIA’s suggested rules. The FCC’s public notice merely asks for comments on the proposal. But Pai has said it’s important to discuss the issues.
“I strongly disagree with those who demand that we ignore the law and deny the public and all stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue,” Pai said in a statement. “We should welcome vigorous debate — not foreclose it. The American people deserve to have a say, and we will give them that chance.”
The agency will take public comment on the proposal over the next 30 days and will allow for an additional 15 days of replies.
The FCC’s two Democrats, who each have opposed the petition, reiterated their concern for the FCC’s involvement in drafting rules for social media companies.
“Social media can be frustrating. But the FCC shouldn’t be the President’s speech police,” Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wrote on Twitter. “So speak up. Tell the FCC to reject this loud and clear.”
FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said that Congress, not the FCC, should be the ones to address concerns over content on social media sites.
“I’m sure this Public Notice will generate a spirited discussion,” he said in a tweet. “Perhaps when comments are in we can package up the whole docket and send it over to Congress — where this debate belongs.”
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