On Thursday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai said that the agency will seek to regulate social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter at the behest of the Trump administration’s executive order signed earlier this year.
“Members of all three branches of the federal government have expressed serious concerns about the prevailing interpretation of the immunity set for in Section 230 of the Communications Act. There is bipartisan support in Congress to reform the law,” Pai said in a statement Thursday. “Social media companies have a First Amendment right to free speech. But they do not have a First Amendment right to a special immunity denied to other media outlets, such as newspapers and broadcasters.”
In May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order targeting tech companies, like Facebook and Google, and Section 230 of the Communications Act, the pivotal internet law that provides them broad legal immunity over content posted by their users. The order instructed the Commerce Department to draft a petition prompting the FCC to reinterpret the law. The Department submitted its petition to the FCC in July.
On Thursday, Pai said that the commission’s general counsel said that “the FCC has the legal authority to reinterpret Section 230.” He continued, “Consistent with this advice, I intend to move forward with a rulemaking to clarify its meaning.”
The FCC did not immediately respond to requests for comment from The Verge seeking clarification on the rulemaking process.
“We’re in the midst of an election. The president’s executive order on Section 230 was politically motivated and legally unsound,” Democrat Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said in a statement Thursday to The Hill. “The FCC shouldn’t do the president’s bidding here.”
“The timing of this effort is absurd,” Democrat Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “The FCC has no business being the President’s speech police.”
Pai’s decision to move forward with rulemaking follows a series of moderation decisions on Wednesday made by Facebook and Twitter against a New York Post article regarding former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who has been the subject of political attacks from the right throughout the 2020 presidential election. Facebook reduced the reach of the story, saying that it was eligible for third-party fact-checking. Twitter went even further, banning linking to the story entirely. In a thread Wednesday night, Twitter cited a 2018 rule against posting hacked information as justification for its decision.
These moves from Facebook and Twitter incited an outcry over conservative bias from Republicans. On Thursday, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee signaled that they would subpoena Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey to testify about the decision at a hearing on October 23rd.
“This is election interference, and we are 19 days out from an election,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) said Thursday. “Never before have we seen active censorship of a major press publication with serious allegations of corruption of one of the two candidates for president.”