NEW YORK (NewsNation Now) — What seemed like a benign announcement by the Federal Communications Commission could upend the world of social media.
In a statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai questions whether the legal protections afforded to tech giants like Twitter and Facebook go too far, and pledges to find out.
“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 and broadcasters.”
Pai is promising to clarify Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which governs how tech companies manage content. Its provisions include shielding social media providers from liability for content posted by their users.
His statement marks the latest fallout over an unverified report in the New York Post, which claimed to contain a “smoking gun” email involving Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
As the veracity and sourcing of that report were being called into question, both Twitter and Facebook — independently and citing different rationale — moved to throttle distribution of the article.
Sen. Ted Cruz, (R-TX), told NewsNation on Capitol Hill Thursday that he tried to retweet a follow-up to the original article during Amy Coney Barrett’s confirmation hearing.
“And in fact, what I tried to tweet out was, ‘let’s see if Twitter blocks this one, too,’” he said. “I hit send, and immediately it came up blocked.”
Sen. Josh Hawley, (R-MO), called it, “unprecedented in American history.”
“They’re now trying to prevent journalists from actually reporting on a presidential campaign,” he said. “We are 20 days from an election.”
While Republicans are outraged that reporting by a major U.S. newspaper is being called into question, even suppressed, by social media companies, the president went a step further.
“So terrible that Facebook and Twitter took down the story of “Smoking Gun” emails related to Sleepy Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, in the @NYPost,” said the president. “It is only the beginning for them. There is nothing worse than a corrupt politician. REPEAL SECTION 230!!!”
It was only a matter of hours before the FCC Chairman issued a statement regarding the same provision.
Twitter said some of the content in the dubious Post story violated its “hacked materials policy,” but company CEO Jack Dorsey later called taking action to limit distribution without providing context “unacceptable.”
Later on Thursday night, Vijaya Gadde, the legal, policy and trust & safety lead at Twitter, announced several changes including:
- No longer removing hacked content unless it was directly shared by hackers or those acting in concert with them.
- Label tweets to provide context instead of blocking links from being shared on Twitter
As it related to the New York Post article, a Twitter spokesperson said there would be no change “as the materials in the article still violate our rules on sharing personal private information.”
As the FCC vows to take a closer look at protections for social media, an expert in tech policy at the University of Colorado is already predicting stumbling blocks for regulators.
“Even if Congress stepped in and said, ‘You can’t block stories that might be politically interesting,’ or ‘You can’t block stories on political grounds because you think you disagree with them,’ or something like that, Twitter and Facebook could very well come back and say, ‘No, we’ve got a First Amendment right to decide what happens on our platforms, and if you don’t like that you can always go use another platform,'” Professor Blake Reid said.
The CEOs of both companies will soon get a chance to weigh in. They’re scheduled to appear before the Senate Commerce Committee on Oct. 28, less than a week before Election Day.
Full FCC Statement
“Members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed serious 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. The U.S. Department of Commerce has petitioned the Commission to ‘clarify ambiguities in section 230.’ And earlier this week, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pointed out that courts have relied upon ‘policy and purpose arguments to grant sweeping protections to Internet platforms’ that appear to go far beyond the actual text of the provision.
As elected officials consider whether to change the law, the question remains: What does Section 230 currently mean? 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. 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.
Throughout my tenure at the Federal Communications Commission, I have favored regulatory parity, transparency, and free expression. 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.”
ajit pai, fcc chairman
“We want to provide much needed clarity around the actions we’ve taken with respect to two NY Post articles that were first Tweeted this morning.
The images contained in the articles include personal and private information — like email addresses and phone numbers — which violate our rules.
As noted this morning, we also currently view materials included in the articles as violations of our Hacked Materials Policy.
Commentary on or discussion about hacked materials, such as articles that cover them but do not include or link to the materials themselves, aren’t a violation of this policy. Our policy only covers links to or images of hacked material themselves.
The policy, established in 2018, prohibits the use of our service to distribute content obtained without authorization. We don’t want to incentivize hacking by allowing Twitter to be used as distribution for possibly illegally obtained materials.
We know we have more work to do to provide clarity in our product when we enforce our rules in this manner. We should provide additional clarity and context when preventing the Tweeting or DMing of URLs that violate our policies.
We recognize that Twitter is just one of many places where people can find information online, and the Twitter Rules are intended to protect the conversation on our service, and to add context to people’s experience where we can.”