Aug 4, 2020 - Technology

FCC takes next step on Trump's social media executive order

A social media post going poof

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/Axios

The Federal Communications Commission Monday took the next step toward enacting a request from President Trump to craft new rules for online content, aimed at ending what he called "censorship" of conservatives. At the same time, the White House withdrew a GOP commissioner's renomination to the agency after he criticized calls for the government to regulate online speech.

The big picture: The FCC's move stems from a May executive order by the president, aimed at scaling back the liability shield that protects platforms from liability for content posted by users.

  • Trump wants the government to step in to ensure platforms are being “fair”— but writing rules that affect how companies like Facebook and Twitter can police speech would be a major new assertion of authority for the FCC.

Driving the news:

  • The FCC asked the public Monday to weigh in on the request to review the liability shield, known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The request came from the Commerce Department, as directed by Trump under the executive order.
  • Later in the day, the White House withdrew Republican Commissioner Mike O'Rielly's nomination for a second term. In a speech last week — although he insisted he wasn't talking about Trump — he slammed those who "demean and denigrate the values of our Constitution" in pushing for the government to direct "private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way."

What we're hearing: Word in the Senate is that the White House withdrew O'Rielly's nomination specifically because he wasn't supportive enough of having the FCC write rules to curb Section 230's power, a Senate aide tells Axios.

  • O'Rielly had previously been on a glide path to reconfirmation (although Sen. Jim Inhofe did place a hold on his nomination over an unrelated airwaves fight last week).
  • While in the Republican minority in the Obama administration, he and current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai both warned against any effort that might see the FCC regulating the practices of online platforms and other web content companies.

Between the lines: The FCC could have moved straight to authoring proposed rules. It didn't.

  • Asking for input first means it will be at least 45 days of gathering comments before the agency can even start the rulemaking process. Then, it will have to draft a proposal and take months to gather more public input before it can finalize and enact rules.
  • That pushes out the date by which it's possible for the FCC to deliver final rules to well after the November election. And the agency could simply let the matter quietly die at any time.

Yes, but: It also could have denied the petition, as some Democrats on the commission wished. It didn't.

What they're saying: "I strongly disagree with those who demand that we ignore the law and deny the public and all stakeholders the opportunity to weigh in on this important issue," Pai said in a statement accompanying the invitation for public input. "We should welcome vigorous debate—not foreclose it."

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