Politics

The FCC asked for public comments on Trump’s Section 230 executive order. Here’s what people said.

The agency has received more than 1,000 comments in response to a proposal to reform tech's legal protections.

The FCC asked for public comments on Trump’s Section 230 executive order. Here’s what people said.

Rifling through the filings provides an illuminating glimpse into how the fight over tech's prized legal protection is playing out following Trump's social media executive order, which he signed in May.

Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hundreds of comments flooded the Federal Communications Commission's website this week as companies, trade groups, advocacy organizations, passionate individuals and possibly bots scrambled to weigh in the future of Section 230 ahead of Wednesday's deadline.

As is typical with any regulatory process, many of those comments are identical to one another and appear to be copy-and-pasted from some original source. But rifling through the filings provides an illuminating glimpse into how the fight over tech's prized legal protection is playing out following Trump's social media executive order, which he signed in May.

Here's a rundown of the most notable comments from big players — and from someone pretending to be one.

AT&T

AT&T, a longtime rival of the social media companies that rely on Section 230, says it's high time to rein in Facebook and Google to hold them "accountable." The argument goes something like this: We have to follow all these annoying regulations, so why shouldn't they?

The telecom giant said Section 230 was written to protect nascent startups — not the trillion-dollar corporations that Big Tech is today. (AT&T is worth about $200 billion).

"Just as AT&T and other ISPs disclose the basics of their network management practices to the public, leading tech platforms should now be required to make disclosures about how they collect and use data, how they rank search results, how they interconnect and interoperate with others, and, more generally, how their algorithms preference some content, products and services over others," AT&T wrote.

AT&T isn't making any specific recommendations for the future of Section 230, but the company argues that it needs to be reformed in order to reduce "gross disparities" between traditional companies, like ISPs, and online platforms.

Reddit

Reddit has defended Section 230 before Congress before, and it's going to bat for the law again. Reddit benefits directly from Section 230's protections; it could be sued into oblivion if it could be held liable for all of the awful stuff people post on its platform.

"Whereas Section 230 has been improperly portrayed as a gift to 'Big Tech,' we argue that it is crucial to those smaller companies, like ours, that seek to compete with and offer alternatives to the largest corporate entities," Reddit wrote.

Lawmakers often begin griping about Section 230 during controversies over content moderation, as Republicans say social media companies shouldn't be allowed to take down any content they choose, and Democrats say Big Tech should be held liable for the hatred and dangerous content on their platforms.

But Reddit pointed out that its content moderation system is the opposite of the top-down approach used by Google, Twitter and YouTube, and that it's enabled by Section 230.

"The changes to Section 230 interpretation and enforcement proposed by NTIA would undermine our community-centered moderation model and place undue burdens on everyday users who make everyday decisions to curate their community," Reddit wrote.

Tech trade groups

Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon did not file their own comments in response to the proposal. But their trade groups, the Internet Association and NetChoice, sure did, arguing aggressively and extensively for the unconditional protection of Section 230.

The Internet Association and NetChoice both argued that the FCC doesn't have the authority to engage in the rule-making proposed by the petition in the first place, considering Congress hasn't explicitly given FCC jurisdiction over Section 230. And anyway, poking holes in Section 230 could cause "irreparable harm" to the internet ecosystem, they wrote.

"After two decades of judicial interpretation of Section 230, during which the FCC has affirmatively chosen not to assert jurisdiction to regulate online speech, the FCC should not now seek through rule to reinterpret the statute in novel ways," NetChoice wrote. "Having properly not done so in the 24 years since the statute was enacted, the Commission has no special authority or expertise to which courts would defer."

Both groups further noted that any effort by the FCC to tweak the interpretation of Section 230 would likely be met with skepticism from courts in the future.

"NTIA's proposal to have the FCC introduce new rules contradicting well-established case law would adversely impact a large sector of the economy and would be viewed with skepticism by any court due to the agency's lack of designated authority," the Internet Association argued.

The Internet Accountability Project

The Internet Accountability Project, a right-wing anti-tech group, is partially funded by Oracle. It insists it has lots of other donors, too, though it's hard to tell who those donors are given it's a dark-money advocacy group.

The relatively new organization, which has been an influential voice in the Josh Hawley, anti-Big Tech camp on the right, filed comments supporting a "reexamination" of Section 230. IAP rehashed a central Republican argument for reforming Section 230: the need to protect conservative speech online.

"As a conservative group dedicated to advocating for policies that promote online competition, safeguard digital privacy, and prevent political bias, we are troubled that Section 230 is used to protect harmful online content as well as its use by digital platforms to justify arbitrary internal guidelines to allow censorship of conservative speech," IAP wrote.

IAP argued that the Trump administration and the FCC have full authority to take on Section 230, and they should use it to the fullest extent.

"Based on the unprecedented expansion of the digital marketplace in recent decades, we ask that the Commission reevaluate the operability of Section 230 using its broad rule-making authorities impliedly authorized by the Supreme Court and demanded by a civil society that considers freedom of speech a fundamental value," IAP wrote.

100 Black Men of America

100 Black Men of America, a men's group dedicated to mentoring and educating young African-Americans in the U.S., argued that the FCC and Congress should review whether Section 230 needs to be updated to stave off the "increasing amounts of hateful, false and/or violent content" online.

"There have been far too many alarming examples of algorithms driving vile, hateful or conspiratorial content to the top of the sites millions of people click onto every day — companies seeming to aid in the spread of this content as a direct function of their business models," 100 Black Men of America wrote.

The group specifically called out Amazon for using Section 230 as a "legal shield to avoid liability" when the site sells unsafe or unapproved products on their website.

Mark Zuckerberg himself

Just kidding. But a person in Moline, Illinois, posted under the moniker Mark Zuckerberg: "People on Facebook can and do call me every name in the book, including wishing sickness and death upon my children and I simply because I'm a Trump supporter and will homeschool my children when they get school age. If I try to report these people, they always come back and say there was no violation that occurred. The second I try to retaliate I get put on a 30 day ban."

The comment is a good reminder that the public comments process, while an important part of administrative rule-making, is extremely vulnerable to identity theft, spam and inauthentic behavior.

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