Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, signaled his agency’s intention to regulate social media platforms on Thursday — one day after conservatives accused Facebook and Twitter of trying to cover up a negative tabloid story about Hunter Biden and his father, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The timing is inescapable. A Trump executive order from May directed the Commerce Department to petition the FCC, urging the latter to reevaluate the law. This petition was filed in July, but Pai has only just decided to act.
On Wednesday, conservatives swarmed social media, incensed by Facebook and Twitter’s decisions to block the spread of an unverified “smoking gun” article in The New York Post that casts Hunter Biden and his father as corrupt. The e-mails at the heart of the article haven’t been authenticated, and disinformation and technology experts note that the story’s sourcing and messages contain a number of holes — including the absence of metadata that could help verify the e-mails’ origins.
Facebook said it was preventing the article’s spread temporarily, pending third-party fact-checking, while Twitter blocked posts from linking to the article, explaining later that it included hacked documents revealing sensitive information, such as contact details.
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With that context, Pai issued the following statement on Thursday.
The FCC chief zeroed in on a controversial part of the Communications Act that safeguards platforms from liability over the content shared by their users.
“Members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed serious concerns about the prevailing interpretation of the immunity set for in Section 230 of the Communications Act. There is bipartisan support in Congress to reform the law,” he wrote. “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.”
Although legislators on both sides of the aisle have shown deep concern about how social media platforms conduct themselves, as well as particular interest in Section 230, Pai’s response prompted swift reactions from Democratic lawmakers.
“We’re in the midst of an election,” Democrat Commissioner Geoffrey Starks told reporters on Thursday. “The president’s executive order on Section 230 was politically motivated and legally unsound. The FCC shouldn’t do the president’s bidding here.”
For Republicans, who have long accused tech companies of bias against conservatives, the social media giants have crossed a line. Sen. Ted Cruz called Facebook and Twitter’s actions “election interference.”
With the FCC now taking steps, the situation could radically reshape how tech platforms and online communities function in the future. The effect could change everything from the way influencers communicate with their fanbases to how and which brands conduct advertising, marketing or other business across social media.
On Thursday, as conservative media called Twitter chief executive officer Jack Dorsey “an enemy of the people and the free press,” Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee voiced their intention to haul Dorsey in to testify on Oct. 23 to answer for his platform’s actions.
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