Republican Senators Press FCC to Redefine Section 230

US Republican senators have signed an open letter urging the regulator to redefine Section 230 to include imaginary “political bias” stipulations.

The Republican war on free speech has entered the next phase recently. Senators have signed an open letter urging the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to redefine Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

It all started after impeached US president Donald Trump posted a tweet falsely suggesting that mail-in ballots will lead to massive widespread fraud. At that point, Twitter did something that no one expected they would do, they actually did something about it. Under the backdrop that some are accusing social media of not doing enough to combat misinformation, Twitter posted a fact-check notice underneath the pair of tweets urging readers to get the facts about mail-in ballots.

Of course, Trump didn’t take too kindly to having facts associated with his Tweets. In his incredibly thin-skinned response, Trump vowed to hit Twitter back hard for having the audacity to take a baby step forward in actually applying the rules to everyone. The very next day, Trump signed an executive order attempting to kill Section 230 which is a pillar to protecting free speech. In the days since, Trump has been having a prolonged meltdown over the incident screaming over Twitter to “revoke 230”.

The idea behind the executive order is to punish social media sites should they be engaged in so-called “political bias”. Of course, conservatives have long been throwing themselves into hysterics over “political bias” even getting to the point of re-writing the Bible in their quest to take on “Liberal distortions”. So, this war on such an imaginary threat is nothing new. What is new is that a US president is signing executive orders trying to combat this imaginary foe in the world.

As we pointed out numerous times now, however, is that revoking Section 230 is going to lead to the exact opposite conclusion that Trump is hoping for. This is because Section 230 protects platforms from liability for the activities of their users. For instance, if someone threatens violence on a platform, the platform is not held liable for hosting said content. The responsibility is put on the users themselves. So, taken to the logical conclusion, if platforms are accused of “political bias” and have their Section 230 protections revoked, that will actually lead to a much heavier policing of user content to avoid further liability. This over top of the fact that you can’t simply change laws via executive order without support from other branches of government.

In the time since our analysis and the signing of the executive order, many others have weighed in. The opinions ranged from dismissal that the executive order is legally meaningless to offence that the administration has chosen to assault free speech. Shortly after, that opposition led to a full blown legal challenge by a group backed by Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The legal challenge says that, among other things, that the executive order is unconstitutional because if violates free speech.

Of course, some Republicans are unfazed by the reality of the situation and have decided to go to bat for Trump. Republican senators Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, Kelly Loeffler, and Kevin Cramer have signed an open letter urging the FCC to re-examine Section 230. From the open letter (PDF):

Section 230of the Communications Decency Act shields social media platforms from the liability imposed on publishers when they act in “good faith” to restrict access to or remove certain objectionable materials. However, the protections afforded by Section 230 are not absolute or unconditional. While social media companies enjoy their special status under Section 230, it is questionable that they are living up to their obligations when they blur the lines between distributor and publisher by favoring one political point of view over another.

While the President has the means to push back on unfair treatment, we worry about everyday Americans who are sidelined, silenced, or otherwise censored by these corporations. Social media companies, whose protections come from their acting as distributors, not publishers, have increasingly engaged in partisan editorializing, censorship of Chinese dissidents, and a host of politically motivated speech policing. While these actions speak for themselves, companies continue to enjoy Section 230 protections due to a lack of clear rules and judicial expansion of the statute.

Social media companies have become involved in a range of editorial and promotional activity; like publishers, they monetize, edit, and otherwise editorialize user content.It is time to take a fresh look at Section 230 and to interpret the vague standard of “good faith” with specific guidelines and direction. In addition, it appears that courts have granted companies immunity for editing and altering content even though the text of Section 230 prohibits immunity for any content that the company “in part … develop[s].” These interpretations also deserve a fresh look. We therefore request that the FCC clearly define the framework under which technology firms, including social media companies, receive protections under Section 230.

Of course, as Drew Curtis pointed out earlier, a big question is how the FCC will respond. So far, we haven’t seen any indication on whether or not the Republican controlled regulator will actually act on this. Curtis seems to think that Ajit Pai won’t act on it because this means adding regulation. Based on our analysis on the situation, however, we’re not so sure about that given Republican’s history of supporting big government regulation when they think it benefits them. So, we’re more leaning towards the idea that this is much closer to a 50/50 chance that Pai will or won’t act on this. Of course, like Curtis, all we can do is wait and see how the FCC responds.

(Via The Verge)

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.



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