President Donald Trump has long attacked the very social media platforms that energize his fans — particularly the base of die-hard supporters who, on Wednesday, literally drove their animus into the physical Capitol building.
But in the wake of the riot, efforts by his administration to unravel key protections for those platforms unceremoniously died, according to Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai.
Talking to C-Span this week, Pai said time has simply run out for his agency to address Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which shields technology companies from liability over the content posted by users.
The FCC chief plans to vacate his role on Jan. 20, the day of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, marking the beginning of a new administration. With so little time left, he said, “I do not intend to move forward.”
But tech companies shouldn’t uncork the Champagne just yet.
Democrats, who will be in control of both the House and Senate for the first time in a decade, haven’t been keen on the agency or the Trump administration’s taking blunt measures on Section 230. Under Trump orders issued in May, the Commerce Department instructed the FCC to reinterpret Section 230, presumably to leave companies like Facebook and Twitter more exposed legally.
Three months ago, Pai vowed to take action to “clarify the meaning of Section 230.”
Read my full statement below. pic.twitter.com/LhUz5XMdSC
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPai) October 15, 2020
That was before the presidential election and Wednesday’s certification of Biden’s Electoral College victory.
Now, according to Pai, it’s up to Congress to figure out what to do about the law. He called it “a decision for lawmakers to consider.”
And that’s just what they’re poised to do, and rather seriously. Especially now. Some officials place at least part of the blame for the D.C. riot on Big Tech as the digital firehoses that allowed misinformation and anarchy to flow.
A growing list of tech companies — including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Reddit and even Shopify — have either blocked or suspended accounts related to Trump, MAGA or the conspiracy theories swirling around them. But for some officials, it looks like too little, too late.
According to Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D.-Conn., the need to “reform Big Tech’s privileges and obligations” have snapped into greater focus due to the violence this week.
It “begins with reforming Section 230, preventing infringements on fundamental rights, stopping the destructive use of Americans’ private data and other clear harms,” he said.
What happens next could irrevocably shape the future of social media. If Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and others are suddenly on the hook for the content coursing through their networks, their terms and policies would necessarily have to change, and that could alter the nature of their engagement-based advertising models. The ripple effects could be massive.
Little wonder then that Big Tech is spending a lot of time and resources on lobbying or other efforts to seed executives within the incoming administration. It all makes for possibly the most consequential year or two for Big Tech in general, and social media in particular.