House Democrats Press Pai on Section 230 Item

Capitol Hill
(Image credit: Architect of the Capitol)

The Democratic leadership of the House Energy & Commerce Committee said the FCC has some explaining to do about chairman Ajit Pai's decision to act on the Trump Administration's request that it find a way to regulate social media, platforms Republicans argue are using their Section 230 liability immunity to censor conservative speech.

In a letter to Pai, Reps. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), chairman of the committee, and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), chairman of the Communications Subcommittee, demanded information on what they said was the FCC's sudden decision to move on a Section 230 rulemaking and announce it just before the election.

“The fact that this announcement came just weeks before the election, and that President Trump has pushed for this [Communications Decency Act Section 230] rulemaking, raise serious questions about the independence of the agency," they wrote. "The American people deserve to know what conversations, if any, have transpired between you, your office and the White House to ensure the integrity of the FCC,” Pallone and Doyle wrote. “Since Congress’ enactment of CDA 230 [almost 25 years ago], the FCC has played no role in implementing or interpreting this provision. It wasn’t until online platforms began fact-checking the President’s content that he and his Administration began an aggressive campaign to persuade the FCC to dictate how online platforms moderate content.”

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Section 230 provides immunity from civil liability for social media sites' moderation of third party content.

They argued that not only had the FCC agreed to do the President's bidding under pressure from the Administration, the Administration was willing to retaliate against those who don't get with the program. 

They cited, as had Democrats in a Section 230 hearing in the Senate the same day, the President's abrupt pulling of the nomination of FCC commissioner Michael O'Rielly after he criticized the effort to regulate social media, then nominated Nathan Simington to the post, who according to reports worked on the petition seeking the FCC Section 230 rulemaking. They said that not long after Trump tweeted "at" Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee that they should confirm Simington, Wicker scheduled a confirmation hearing (Nov. 10).

They said it looked like the FCC was working with the Administration to "influence" online platforms by advancing the rulemaking.

They wanted responses to the following:

"Has anyone from the White House, Executive Office of the President, the NTIA or Department of Justice contacted FCC regarding this Section 230 rulemaking? If so, what was discussed?

"Has anyone from the Trump campaign contacted FCC regarding Section 230?

"Has Chairman Pai or his staff contacted either the White House or the Trump campaign regarding Section 230, and if so, what was discussed?"

They said that "contacted" included Administration requests about the status of the item, queries that would not have to be disclosed under ex parte rules. 

The FCC had not returned a request for comment at press time.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.