The Trump administration has taken the first formal step to strip social media companies of liability protection if they edit or censor user content, asking the Federal Communications Commission to reinterpret Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
The petition to the FCC on Monday essentially asks that platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to be treated like other media outlets: newspapers, TV stations, etc., subject to liability claims if they selectively choose which content to publish and or modify.
It cited President Donald Trump's executive order signed May 28 that said social media companies that exercised an editorial control were no longer neutral providers of a discussion space.
"Provision and control of the public square is a public trust," the petition said. "Because it entails selecting which speech gets heard and by whom, social media can assimilate a collective conversation into a corporate voice with a corporate point of view.
"As the [executive order] explains, 'when large, powerful social media companies censor opinions with which they disagree, they exercise a dangerous power. They cease functioning as passive bulletin boards, and ought to be viewed and treated as content creators.'"
The 1996 law was enacted at the beginning of the Internet era and was intended to keep pornography from reaching minors.
However, the petition said advances in digital technology, such as high-speed Internet, artificial intelligence, and automated methods of textual analysis has made previous interpretations of Section 230 obsolete.
"Unfortunately, large online platforms appear to engage in selective censorship that is harming our national discourse. The [executive order] notes that 'tens of thousands of Americans have reported online platforms "flagging" content as inappropriate, even though it does not violate any stated terms of service' and is not unlawful. The platforms 'mak[e] unannounced and unexplained changes to company policies that have the effect of disfavoring certain viewpoints and delet[e] content and entire accounts with no warning, no rationale, and no recourse.'"
It quoted FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr as saying "there’s no question that (large social media platforms) are engaging in editorial conduct, that these are not neutral platforms."
The petition identified Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube as moderating content and also referred to Instagram in footnotes.
Among the inconsistencies the petition cited were how social media companies "censor or fact-check constitutionally elected democratic leaders, many social media companies welcome and facilitate censorship by the Chinese Communist Party."
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