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Trump eyes social media bias hawk as next FCC commissioner

Trump eyes social media bias hawk as next FCC commissioner


Trump withdrew an FCC veteran’s nomination earlier this year

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Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration is considering an unconventional pick for the next FCC commissioner, a senior adviser at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) who has played a significant role in the agency’s social media regulation agenda. The choice is still tentative, but if confirmed, the nomination would represent a significant blow to Republicans who favor a light-touch approach to telecom policy.

Three sources close to the matter say Nathan Simington, a senior advisor at the NTIA within the commerce department, has emerged as a leading candidate to take over Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly’s seat at the FCC. 

What is Section 230?

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which was passed in 1996, says an “interactive computer service” can’t be treated as the publisher or speaker of third-party content. This protects websites from lawsuits if a user posts something illegal, although there are exceptions for pirated and prostitution-related material.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Chris Cox (R-CA) crafted Section 230 so website owners could moderate sites without worrying about legal liability. The law is particularly vital for social media networks, but it covers many sites and services, including news outlets with comment sections — like The Verge. The Electronic Frontier Foundation calls it “the most important law protecting internet speech.”

It’s increasingly controversial and frequently misinterpreted, however. Critics argue that its broad protections let powerful companies ignore real harm to users. On the other hand, some lawmakers incorrectly claim that it only protects “neutral platforms” — a term that’s irrelevant to the law.

Simington is said to have helped draft the administration’s social media executive order, and his nomination would be a victory for Republicans who want to see the FCC take a larger role in regulating social networks. 

Simington would be a significant break from O’Rielly, who had expressed concerns that Trump’s anti-bias efforts could violate constitutional law. “As a conservative, I’m troubled voices are stifled by liberal tech leaders,” he wrote on Twitter in May, in response to news of Trump’s looming executive order. “At same time, I’m extremely dedicated to First Amendment which governs much here.” 

In August, Trump abruptly withdrew O’Rielly’s nomination after the commissioner gave a speech opposing making changes to Section 230. O’Rielly has served at the FCC for six years and was expected to serve a third term.

In the wake of the unexpected withdrawal, the search for O’Rielly’s successor has been chaotic, and it’s still unclear whether a nomination will be submitted before the November election.

Simington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Historically, the White House does not comment on personnel and declined to do so when reached by The Verge.

In May, Trump signed an executive order responding to perceived bias against conservatives in the way social media companies moderate their platforms. The order specifically targeted platforms’ legal protections under Section 230, instructing NTIA to draft a petition for submission to the FCC requesting that the telecom agency reinterpret the protections granted by the law. NTIA officially filed its petition with the FCC in July. On August 3rd, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai opened the petition for public comment. 

“We should welcome vigorous debate—not foreclose it,” Pai said in a statement at the time. “The American people deserve to have a say, and we will give them that chance.” That commenting period was recently closed.