The Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday voted 14-12 along party lines to advance the nomination of controversial telecom lawyer Nathan Simington to the Federal Communications Commission.
If confirmed by the full Senate, President-elect Joe Biden will begin his term with the FCC evenly split between Democrats and Republicans -- which could hamper his goal of restoring net neutrality rules.
President Trump nominated Simington to the agency after abruptly withdrawing the re-nomination of FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who publicly indicated he didn't believe the agency should accede to Trump's request to weaken Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act -- the 24-year-old media law that undergirds the modern web.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington) opposed Simington's nomination, noting his lack of experience at the FCC, the circumstances of his nomination, and questions about his prior candor with lawmakers.
“Real questions about been raised about Mr. Simington's candor with the committee during this confirmation process,” Cantwell said. “We now know, based on his own emails, that he misrepresented his involvement in pushing the FCC to do the president's bidding on Section 230.”
Simington, a senior adviser at the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration, help draft the agency's petition to the FCC for rules to weaken Section 230.
That law protects web publishers from liability when users' posts are defamatory or otherwise unlawful. It also immunizes companies from lawsuits for decisions about content moderation decisions. The First Amendment also shields companies from decisions about content moderation, but Section 230 can offer companies an easier path to victory when they're sued over moderation decisions.
At at Senate hearing earlier this month, Simington downplayed his role in drafting the NTIA's petition, saying he only worked on around 5%-to-7% of the document.
But it later emerged that Simington also worked behind-the-scenes to influence media coverage of the Commerce Department's initiative, according to Politico. In June, he reportedly emailed a Fox News staffer as part of an attempt to persuade conservative commentator Laura Ingraham to back the idea that the FCC should regulate social media.
“Any additional support we might be able to obtain could help to get the FCC on board more quickly and thereby ensure a freer, fairer social media landscape going into the elections this fall,” he reportedly said in an email to Fox News.
Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said Tuesday he will attempt to block the appointment.
“I will continue to do everything I can to hold this nomination and to oppose it,” Blumenthal told lawmakers.
“What's at stake here is more than just a single nominee or any particular issue. It is, in fact, the independence of the FCC,” Blumenthal said. “It would seem that Mr. Simington was nominated for just one purpose -- to support the president's indefensible assault on the First Amendment.”