After calls from Donald Trump for reform of the way social media content is moderated, the US National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), part of the Department of Commerce, has take the first steps to make it happen.
The NTIA has filed a formal petition to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), asking it to issue rules on when internet platforms are liable for user content posted on their sites.
The move stems from an executive order signed by Trump in May, after Twitter warned users to fact-check his statements claiming mass fraud in mail-in voting. It centers on Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects social media companies from liability for content posted by their users, and allows them to remove offensive or inaccurate posts.
The petition requires platforms to demonstrate that content regulation is being carried out ‘in good faith’, and requires them to be politically neutral. It calls on the FCC to rule on how section 230 covers content moderation decisions, and clarify when platforms are entitled to protection.
The petition has been welcomed by FCC commissioner Brendan Carr.
“The federal government has provided virtually no guidance on how the unique and conditional set of legal privileges Congress conferred on social media companies should be interpreted today,” he says.
“The Section 230 petition provides an opportunity to bring much-needed clarity to the statutory text. And it allows us to move forward in a way that will empower speakers to engage in ‘a forum for a true diversity of political discourse,’ as Congress envisioned when it passed Section 230.”
However, many – including Carr’s fellow commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel – have deep concerns.
“The First Amendment is not present to protect the president from media. It’s present to protect media from the president,” she says.
“In the United States we are a democratic, open society in which people can hold their government accountable, even if imperfectly. Whether we can keep it that way depends on the survival of a robust, independent digital space for activism and public discourse. These spaces only thrive if we say no to the President’s invitation to make our networks less open and more closed to civic debate.”
And some, such as campaign group TechFreedom, claim the aims of the petition are unconstitutional.
“The petition is a monumental waste of the FCC’s time: it garbles both statutory interpretation and constitutional law,” says general counsel James Dunstan.
“There’s no way for the FCC, the FTC, or any court to decide what constitutes ‘good faith’ content moderation, because it would require the government to examine the content of internet speech, which the First Amendment clearly forbids.”