Commentary

FCC Urged To Reject 'Digital Authoritarianism,' Dismiss Petition For Social Media Rules

Moving forward with President Trump's planned crackdown on social media platforms would send the wrong message about the value of free speech, the Consumer Technology Association told the Federal Communications Commission Thursday.

“The United States should be championing online freedom as the antidote to digital authoritarianism, not succumbing to or attempting to emulate that authoritarianism,” the trade group said in its most recent filing with the agency.

The organization, which represents many of the country's largest technology companies, is asking the FCC to reject the White House's request for rules that could link web companies' legal protections for users' speech to the companies' content moderation policies.

“This Administration -- and this Commission -- have correctly focused on the threat posed by Chinese state control of technologies and applications, its censorship, and its lack of free speech,” the group writes. “The United States has a uniquely powerful weapon in that battle: its commitment to free speech and its corresponding rejection of government intervention in the marketplace of ideas.”

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Earlier this year, President Trump issued an executive order aimed at revising Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act -- which currently immunizes web publishers from liability for users' posts. Trump did so after Twitter alerted users to dubious claims in two of his tweets.

Trump's order directed the Commerce Department to seek FCC regulations that could limit tech companies' immunity when they restrict or remove users' posts without a "reasoned explanation.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration brought that petition in July, and the FCC is considering it.

Numerous groups, including the Association of National Advertisers' counsel, have said the government would violate the First Amendment by restricting web platforms' freedom to decide how to treat speech by users.

“The First Amendment protects us from having the government suppress or compel our speech except in very limited circumstances,” ANA general counsel Doug Wood stated earlier this year. “If speech is political in nature, it's perfectly fine to lie. That's what politicians often do. But that does not mean publishers or media companies have to perpetuate lies if they deem that unacceptable.”

The Consumer Technology Association writes that the White House's requested rules would create a regime akin to the “fairness doctrine” -- a discarded policy that required TV broadcasters to give equal airtime to both sides of controversies.

“The Fairness Doctrine was not good policy for broadcasting and is not good policy for the internet,” the trade group writes.

It adds: “At a time when the American government is drawing a sharp contrast between U.S. technology leadership and Chinese online censorship, moving forward with this petition would send the wrong message: that America, too, is willing to regulate speech when it offends the politically powerful.”

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