Oct 16, 2020 - Technology

Republican rage targets Facebook and Twitter

Illustration of President Trump's shadow being cast over the logos of Facebook and Twitter

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Republicans and conservatives are unloading on Facebook and Twitter a day after the companies limited the sharing of a New York Post story based on emails and files apparently stolen from Hunter Biden.

Where it stands: The attacks are passionate, but the likelihood of government action against the platforms remains low. Even the most realistic and increasingly popular proposal — to punish online platforms by removing their prized liability shield — would be a steep uphill battle.

Driving the news: Republicans are rallying around shrinking or eliminating Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which immunizes tech platforms against lawsuits over both moderation decisions and the material their users post.

  • "We're going to take away their Section 230 unless they shape up," President Trump said after bringing up the news at a North Carolina rally Thursday.
  • House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) told reporters Thursday that, in light of the news, "it's time to scrap" Section 230.

At the Federal Communications Commission, chairman Ajit Pai said in a Thursday statement that he plans to go through with crafting rules aimed at limiting the scope of Section 230 protections, as Trump requested in an executive order.

  • Pai said the agency's general counsel concluded that the FCC has the legal authority to do so, an idea that critics on both the right and left have questioned.
  • Any FCC action will depend on a Trump victory in November. Pushing the commission in this direction is a nonstarter for Democrats.

Republicans could also turn to the courts to scotch Section 230. The Supreme Court, Justice Clarence Thomas wrote earlier this week, should look for a case that would let it narrow the law's scope.

  • But for now, at least, getting the John Roberts court to hear such a case and deliver a precedent-breaking ruling may amount to Republican wishful thinking.

The most effective path to rein in Section 230 goes through Congress, which could pass new legislation.

  • There's bipartisan interest in that idea, but the parties' motives are at odds. Republicans focus on claims of anti-conservative bias, while Democrats want to hold tech platforms more accountable for the spread of misinformation.
  • The New York Post case has Republicans furious, while Democrats are likely to see it as a success in the fight against misinformation.
  • It's harder than ever to see them working together on this issue.

Beyond Section 230, Republicans are pursuing other lines of attack against the tech platforms.

  • Hearings: Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans plan to subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to make him testify next Friday on the matter. Panel member Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) also wants to subpoena Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Both executives are already sure to be grilled about the move when they testify alongside Google CEO Sundar Pichai at a Senate Commerce hearing Oct. 28.
  • Antitrust: Some, like Rep. Ken Buck, reupped calls for antitrust enforcement against the big tech platforms as a response to the moves against the Hunter Biden story.
  • Campaign finance law: In a Thursday letter to Zuckerberg, Hawley argued that halting the spread of the story may be a campaign finance violation, since the move serves, Hawley contends, as an in-kind contribution to the Biden campaign.

Reality check: A hearing might be dramatic, but none of these approaches is likely to show results.

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