U.S. FCC action to limit key social media protection increasingly unlikely

FILE PHOTO: FCC commissioners testify before U.S. Congress in Washington
FILE PHOTO: Chairman of Federal Communications Commission Ajit Pai testifies during an oversight hearing held by the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee to examine the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in Washington, U.S. June 24, 2020. Alex Wong/Pool via REUTERS

January 5, 2021

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The prospects of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai taking action on an effort to narrow social media companies legal protections under a 1996 law are increasingly unlikely.

Both Pai and U.S. President Donald Trump have only 16 days remaining in office and it remains unclear if a new third Republican FCC commissioner could participate in any action.

Pai said on Oct. 15 he would move to set new rules to define protections for social media firms under Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts.

That statement came in response to a petition filed by the Trump administration in July. The two FCC Democrats urged Pai to reject the petition.

Since October, Pai has taken no further action on the petition and foregone his typical press conferences after the November and December commission meetings. He also opted not to place any Section 230 action on the Jan. 13 meeting agenda.

A spokesman for Pai declined to comment on Monday.

On Monday, the office of FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington said it is uncertain if he could participate in any Section 230 proceeding.

Simington’s office said FCC ethics counsel advised “as there is no currently-pending Section 230 matter before the commission to be discussed with specificity, it could not comprehensively rule out potential recusal in the future. However, no grounds were identified for recusal on this topic at this time.”

Trump tapped Simington after abruptly pulling his nomination of then-Republican FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly for a new term in August after O’Rielly questioned whether the FCC had authority to issue social media regulations.

Trump also urged Congress to repeal Section 230 and vetoed an annual defense bill in part because it did not include the repeal. Congress overrode his veto.

(Reporting by David Shepardson)