The Trump administration pressed its offensive against online companies it accuses of censoring conservatives, asking regulators to dilute a decades-old law that social media giants such as Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and Google say is crucial to them.
The Commerce Department on Monday asked the Federal Communications Commission to write a regulation weakening protections laid out in Section 230, language in a 1996 law that protects online companies from legal liability for users’ posts, and for decisions to remove material.
The request was called for in an executive order that U.S. President Donald Trump signed in May. Tech trade groups, civil liberties organizations and legal scholars have slammed the executive order, saying that it was unlikely to survive a court challenge.
But the petition renews attention on web companies ahead of an antitrust hearing in Congress on July 29 that is scheduled to include chief executives of Amazon.com Inc., Facebook, Google parent Alphabet Inc. and Apple Inc. The hearing concerns competition online, and it may also include discussion of web posting practices. Facebook, for example, has faced accusations it doesn’t adequately police hateful and misleading content. The company says it has increased efforts to fight misinformation and stymie election interference.
“Social media and its growing dominance present troubling questions on how to preserve First Amendment ideals and promote diversity of voices in modern communications technology,” the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, a Commerce Department arm, said in its petition to the FCC.
Trump signed the executive order after Twitter labeled several of his posts as potentially misleading. Trump cited Twitter, Google, Facebook “and perhaps others” and said online companies have “unchecked power to censor, restrict, edit, shape, hide” communications.
Times have changed since the law giving the platforms liability protection was written, and “a handful of large social media platforms” have replaced a “sprawling world” of dial-up internet service providers and countless bulletin boards, according to the NTIA petition.
The Republican-majority FCC is an independent agency and has leeway to reject the request. But Brian Hart, an agency spokesman, said in an email that the “FCC will carefully review the petition.”
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a member of the agency’s Democratic minority, said the FCC “shouldn’t take this bait.”
“While social media can be frustrating, turning this agency into the president’s speech police is not the answer,” Rosenworcel said in an emailed statement. “If we honor the Constitution, we will reject this petition immediately.”
The executive order is the latest in a yearslong campaign by the president and his allies against social media companies. The companies say they’re combating disinformation and foreign interference after the federal government found that Russia used U.S. social media to try to influence the 2016 election.
Online companies have protections against lawsuits when they act “in good faith” in suppressing social media posts, but the law doesn’t define bad faith. According to Trump’s executive order, the FCC would issue rules clarifying the issue. This could allow users to sue over takedowns.
In June, the Justice Department asked Congress for a broad overhaul of legal protections for online platforms if they deliberately promote illegal speech on their websites. The proposals could upend the companies’ business models, and also limit their discretion to remove political posts.
The Internet Association, a trade group representing major online providers, has sought to refute accusations of unfairness. “Claims of so-called viewpoint bias rely on isolated anecdotes,” Interim President and Chief Executive Officer Jon Berroya said in a May 28 statement. The group said the Justice Department’s proposed changes would bring a threat of litigation to content moderation decisions, making it harder to ensure sites are safe.
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