Press Release

Public Knowledge Responds to White House Proposal to Require FTC, FCC to Monitor Speech on Social Media

August 9, 2019 , , , ,

Today, reports surfaced that the Trump Administration is drafting an Executive Order that would require the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission to monitor speech on social media platforms. Reports indicate that the draft order calls for the FCC to develop new regulations detailing how and when the law shields social media companies when they remove content from their platforms. Public Knowledge finds this Administration’s potential abandonment of free speech and agency independence alarming.

The following can be attributed to Chris Lewis, President and CEO of Public Knowledge:

“These leaks about a potential Executive Order from the White House are troubling on many levels, from the order’s potential to violate the First Amendment, to its apparent disregard for the independence of agencies like the FCC and the FTC, to its intent to unilaterally limit Section 230 which promotes moderated online communities free of hate speech and misinformation. If these reports are a trial balloon from the White House, then it’s time to pop it.

“In the past we have had a bipartisan consensus from FTC and FCC commissioners that they are not interested in regulating speech or content on the internet and that doing so would violate the First Amendment restriction against the government limiting individuals’ speech, including online. While the first reports cite no comment from these two agencies, it is essential that we hear from these agency commissioners that they continue to stand fast in support of First Amendment protections.

“It is all the more important to hear from FCC commissioners given Chairman Pai’s strong condemnation of public positions taken by past administrations on net neutrality violating the independence of the FCC. If these reports are true, this Executive Order serves as a direct order to the FCC that if left unchallenged, could threaten the independence of these agencies altogether.

“Over the past weeks and months we have continued to hear alarms from the White House and other elected officials that social media and other digital platforms should both increase and relax content moderation depending on the day, hour, and circumstance. It is this impossible contradiction that requires the nation to hold firm to the First Amendment protections that keep government out of this direct regulation of speech. 

“Political bias by digital platforms remains unproven. In fact, an independent study by The Economist points towards search platforms having a bias towards virality and attention, not political ideology. This matches reports from books like Tim Wu’s “The Attention Merchants” and others that study social media addiction. It is this sort of algorithmic bias towards virality that foreign adversaries use to sow disinformation and mistrust in our country. 

“If reports are true, this Executive Order could limit the impact of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which encourages the creation of public forums and dialogue online. Section 230 encourages moderation by digital platforms by removing liability for that moderation. Moderation by digital platforms is not a violation of the First Amendment and allows digital platforms to prevent hate speech, violent threats, and other illegal or harmful content from making online communities unsafe for a wider audience. Section 230 was created by Congress and shouldn’t be limited by a unilateral executive order. 

“When a narrow audience wants an unregulated forum, those platforms have been created as well. But we must be careful not to remove the law that prevents all online platforms from being open to the hate speech and misinformation that is the norm on unregulated forums like 8chan. Instead, we want to find ways to empower platforms to moderate content without approaching methods that violate the First Amendment protection against government regulation of speech.”

Please view Chapter V of “The Digital Platform Act” for more information on Section 230 and how to moderate digital platform content.