The FCC is examining whether to roll back Section 230 laws that protect social media firms, drawing fire for being Trump's 'puppet'

Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.Reuters
  • The Federal Communications Commission will "clarify the meaning" of Section 230 of the US Communications Act, its chairman Ajit Pai said Thursday.
  • Section 230 grants internet companies power to moderate the content that appears on their platforms, and protects them from liability for illegal content posted by users.
  • President Trump has railed against Section 230, arguing that it allows tech companies like Facebook to censor lawful speech and target conservatives.
  • "Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech," Pai said. "But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers."
  • Internet rights charity Access Now also condemned Pai's decision, calling him a "puppet" for the Trump administration.
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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is re-examining the part of US law that lets tech companies decide what people are allowed to say on their platforms, acting on demands from President Donald Trump and both Republican and Democrat lawmakers.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced Thursday the Commission would "clarify the meaning" of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996.

Section 230 offers two main legal shields to tech companies: It gives them power to moderate the content that appears on their platforms, and protects them from liability for illegal content posted by users.
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"Members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed concerns about the prevailing interpretation of the immunity set forth in Section 230 of the Communications Act. There is bipartisan support in Congress to reform the law," Pai said in a statement.

Both Democrat and Republican lawmakers have called for reforms to Section 230, though for very different reasons.

Republicans, including Trump, have argued Section 230 allows tech companies like Facebook to censor lawful speech and target conservatives.
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Democrats, including presidential candidate Joe Biden, take issue with the protection from legal liability for harmful content that flourishes on social media platforms.

Pai: 'Many advance an overly broad interpretation' of Section 230

Pai said that his decision to clarify Section 230 was in part prompted by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who on Tuesday wrote that the prevailing interpretation of the law didn't match with what's laid out in the text. Pai said that "as elected officials consider whether to change the law, the question remains: What does Section 230 currently mean?"
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"Many advance an overly broad interpretation that in some cases shields social media companies from consumer protection laws in a way that has no basis in the text of Section 230," he said.

"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.

"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 added.
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Trump has been trying to get Section 230 revoked.

The president signed an executive order in May targeting Section 230, two days after Twitter placed fact-checking labels on two of his tweets.

He again railed against the law on Wednesday, calling for Section 230 to be revoked after Twitter and Facebook limited the spread of a dubious New York Post story about Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden.
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Speaking at a campaign event in Greenville, North Carolina on Thursday, Trump claimed big tech companies conspire with mainstream media outlets against him. "If Big Tech persists in coordination with the mainstream media, we must immediately strip them of their Section 230 protections," Trump said.

Following the executive order, the Department of Justice in September submitted proposed legislation to Congress to alter Section 230. Trump has also been trying to stack the FCC in his favor, in September nominating a loyal advisor to replace Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O'Rielly, who has expressed doubt over the president's executive order.

Pai's announcement splits the FCC

"We're in the midst of an election. The President's Executive Order on #Section230 was politically motivated and legally unsound. The FCC shouldn't do the President's bidding here," tweeted Commissioner Geoffrey Starks on Thursday.
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He was joined by Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. "The FCC has no business being the President's speech police," she tweeted. Both Starks and Rosenworcel are Democrat members of the FCC.

Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr disagreed. "The FCC's General Counsel is right. The FCC has authority to interpret Section 230, and now is the time to move forward with clarifying its meaning," Carr tweeted. O'Rielly did not publicly comment on the decision.
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Digital rights nonprofit Access Now also condemned Pai's decision, calling him a "puppet" for the Trump administration.

"It is unbelievable that the FCC, an independent agency that recently completely deregulated broadband internet providers, is taking its cues from the president and will proceed with a rulemaking that could significantly degrade the First Amendment protections for people and the platforms they use," said Eric Null, Access Now's US policy manager.

"The Trump Administration's allies will stop at nothing to protect the president's flagrant lies that seek to undermine political processes," added Jennifer Brody, legislative manager at Access Now.
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"This is yet another attempt to prevent social media platforms from removing harmful hate speech and disinformation off their sites in this politically charged time," she said. "It is a disgrace and must be stopped."

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