A third Federal Communications Commissioner has voiced concerns over President Trump's recent attempt to crack down on social media.
“While I remain open-minded ... I am skeptical that there’s any role for the Commission here,” FCC Democrat Geoffrey Starks said this week.
His remarks suggest the FCC may rebuff Trump's request to attempt to regulate online speech.
Starks was responding to an executive order issued by Trump late last month, after Twitter highlighted dubious claims in two of his tweets. The order aims to task the FCC with creating regulations that could expose tech companies to liability for posts by users. Specifically, the order directs the Commerce Department to petition the FCC for regulations that would link web companies' protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to the companies' content moderation policies.
Currently, Section 230 protects web platform companies like Twitter, YouTube and Facebook from lawsuits based on a broad swath of material posted by users. Judges throughout the country have repeatedly ruled that web companies retain that protection even when they edit, remove or restrict posts by users. Without Section 230 immunity, platforms that allowed users to post unvetted material would risk potentially ruinous lawsuits.
Starks this week expressed doubt over the FCC's authority to issue the kinds of regulations contemplated by Trump. Speaking at an Information Technology & Information Foundation video webinar, Starks said the FCC can only enact regulations if authorized to do so by Congress. That directive is missing in Section 230.
“On its face, the statute does not direct the FCC -- or anyone -- to make rules,” he sated.
Last week, Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly expressed a similar sentiment.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel came out against the order the day Trump issued it. “An Executive Order that would turn the FCC into the President's speech police is not the answer. It's time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment,” she tweeted last month.
Starks added that even if the FCC attempted to regulate content moderation, that effort could conflict with the First Amendment -- which allows web platforms and other private companies to decide for themselves how to treat speech.
“The First Amendment allows social media companies to censor content freely, in ways the government never could, and it prohibits the government from retaliating against them for their speech,” Starks said. “That so much of what the President proposes seems inconsistent with those core principles makes an FCC rulemaking even less desirable.”
It's worth noting that even if the FCC votes against issuing regulations, Section 230 will likely remain under attack by the White House. This week, the U.S. Department of Justice released its wish list of revisions to the law. It's not yet clear whether the current, bitterly divided Congress will move forward with any of those proposals.