January 25, 2021

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FCC Chairman Quietly Abandoned Attempt to ‘Clarify’ Section 230

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Photo: Alex Wong (Getty Images)

Approximately 5 million years ago back in October, Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai vowed to “move forward with a rulemaking” to “clarify” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a key legal shield that protects online platforms from liability for certain types of content posted by users. However, apparently he quietly let the clock run out on those plans.

Now, less than three months later, Pai says he no longer plans to follow through because, wouldn’t you know it, he’s just too short on time. Drats. (Pai’s stepping down from the agency on Jan. 20 before the incoming Biden administration can give him the boot).

“I do not intend to move forward with the notice of proposed rule-making at the FCC,” he told Protocol on Thursday, explaining that “there’s simply not sufficient time to complete the administrative steps necessary in order to resolve the rule-making.”

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Of course, he may also have let these plans fall through the cracks because the FCC didn’t have the legal authority to follow through with them in the first place.

A senseless executive order on social media that President Donald Trump issued in September tasked the FCC with reining in Section 230 and investigating websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, and YouTube to suss out supposed anti-conservative bias. Trump’s demands came after an explosive tantrum—even for him—about social media platforms fact-checking his posts.

If carried out, this reinterpretation of Section 230 threatened to break the internet in all kinds of ways. At least in theory. Namely, it would essentially set up the Republican-controlled FCC to strip Section 230 liability protections from whatever platforms Trump thought were discriminating against conservatives, thus leaving those platforms vulnerable to litigation for moderating content posted by users. The thing of it is, the FCC simply doesn’t have the power to A) regulate the internet to that extent or B) rewrite federal legislation willy nilly.

It’s worth mentioning that with Democrats now in control of the Senate, President-elect Joe Biden stands poised to fast track his nomination for the FCC’s next chairman and potentially reverse Pai’s most controversial policy decision: killing net neutrality protections that kept internet service providers from limiting access to online content or charging more to use certain sites.

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Pai’s remarks came during an interview on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” set to air this weekend in which the chairman also heavily condemned Wednesday’s insurrection attempt in D.C. that left at least four people dead. He called the violent scene that erupted on Capitol Hill “outrageous and extremely disappointing to those of us who cherish American democracy.”

And while Pai has largely refrained from publicly commenting on the president’s antics during his tenure, he rebuked Trump for spreading baseless election conspiracy theories that should not have been “indulged.”

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“I think it was a terrible mistake to suggest that the results of the election, and particularly the process that culminated yesterday in the Senate and the House, could in any way be changed,” he said. “That was a terrible mistake and one that I do not think in any way should have been indulged.”

[Protocol]

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