Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioner Brendan Carr welcomed the debate on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and the role the statute and social media companies play in free speech in the country, while Democrat commissioners criticized President Donald Trump’s executive order.
Trump signed an executive on Thursday that aims to address social media censorship. The order defines major social media platforms as the “modern public square” and orders the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to petition the FCC to propose regulations that clarify Section 230, specifically in the the “good faith” clause that grants tech platforms legal immunity to filter or remove content that is “obscene, lewd, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable.”
Further, the order asks the FCC to define actions by tech companies that are “deceptive, pretextual, or inconsistent with a provider’s terms of service” and outside the bounds of “good faith.”
The executive order drew swift condemnation by Democrat FCC commissioners, while Republican commissioners supported the debate on the role social media companies have on free speech on the Internet.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel claimed that the executive order would not address alleged censorship on the Internet. She said:
This does not work. Social media can be frustrating. But an Executive Order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the President’s speech police is not the answer. It’s time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment. History won’t be kind to silence.
Commissioner Geoffrey Starks wrote, “I’ll review the final Executive Order when it’s released and assess its impact on [the FCC], but one thing is clear: the 1st Amendment and Section 230 remain the law of the land and control here.”
Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said that Trump “has [the] right to seek review of statute’s application.”
However, he cautioned, “As a conservative, I’m troubled voices are stifled by liberal tech leaders. At same time, I’m extremely dedicated to First Amendment which governs much here.”
Everyone take deep breath on EO, which I haven’t seen. @realDonaldTrump has right to seek review of statute’s application. As a conservative, I’m troubled voices are stifled by liberal tech leaders. At same time, I’m extremely dedicated to First Amendment which governs much here. https://t.co/SQIO124EY7
— Mike O’Rielly (@mikeofcc) May 28, 2020
Pai said, “The debate is an important one. The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”
Pai has criticized Silicon Valley’s threat to free speech on the Internet. During a Senate Commerce Committee hearing last year, he said that “the greatest threat to a free and open internet has been the unregulated Silicon Valley tech giants that do, in fact, today decide what you see and what you don’t.”
In September 2018, Pai said that the country needs to think “seriously” about social media giants need to abide by “new transparency requirements regarding censorship and privacy,” in a similar manner to how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are regulated.
Pai wrote in a Medium post:
And we need to seriously think about whether the time has come for these companies to abide by new transparency obligations. After all, just as is the case with respect to broadband providers, consumers need accurate information in order to make educated choices about whether and how to use these tech giants’ platforms.
He added, “It’s time to have a full and open conversation about the realities of today’s Internet economy.”
Carr was the most enthusiastic about Trump’s call for updating Section 230.
Carr said on Thursday:
Every speaker in this country has a First Amendment right to free speech. Above and beyond those constitutional guarantees, Congress decided in the 1990s to confer a special and unique set of liability and legal privileges on one set of actors, which it defined as ‘providers of interactive computer services’ in a statutory provision known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
Congress took that step to empower parents to protect their children from material on Internet sites like the then-popular Prodigy messaging board. And it acted to protect the ‘good faith’ steps taken by those computer services providers.
The FCC commissioner said that decades after Congress crafted Section 230, social media conglomerates have benefited from the clause, while others have not received the same benefits. He noted that the federal government has not provided any clarification on the “good faith” clause in Section 230.
Flash forward over 20 years, and today’s Internet giants and social media companies now benefit from those Section 230 protections when other speakers do not. Yet the federal government has provided virtually no guidance on the ‘good faith’ limitation Congress included in Section 230. I welcome today’s Executive Order and its call for guidance on the scope of the unique and conditional set of legal privileges that Congress conferred on social media companies but no other set of speakers in Section 230. I look forward to receiving the petition that the NTIA files.
Carr has argued that Internet users should be empowered with the ability to turn off social media companies’ “bias filters.”
Sean Moran is a congressional reporter for Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter @SeanMoran3.