Protocol | Policy

The Capitol Hill riot scrambled FCC Republicans’ Section 230 plans. What now?

The FCC's top tech agitators have been almost silent about Big Tech's Trump bans.

The Capitol Hill riot scrambled FCC Republicans’ Section 230 plans. What now?

The commissioners will gingerly walk a line of condemning the tech platforms without seeming like they are condoning the rhetoric that led to Trump's suspensions or the takedown of Parler.

Photo: Jonathan Newton-Pool/Getty Images

Brendan Carr, one of the Federal Communications Commission's two Republicans, spent the better part of 2020 blasting Big Tech platforms for allegedly censoring conservative speech, appearing on Fox News and right-wing podcasts to claim that social media companies exhibited bias against President Trump and the GOP more broadly.

But in the weeks since Twitter, Facebook and YouTube suspended former President Trump and removed large swaths of his supporters in the wake of the violent riot on Capitol Hill, Carr has remained largely silent about the deplatforming, except to condemn the violence. "Political violence is completely unacceptable," Carr told reporters days after the riot. "It's clear to me President Trump bears responsibility."

The Jan. 6 riot, which the former president incited and which led to his indefinite suspension from social media, has scrambled the debate around content moderation within the FCC and left Carr, as well as the newly-confirmed Republican FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington, in a bind as they carve out what Carr calls a "conservative path forward on Big Tech." Simington in particular had helped push forward Trump's agenda on Section 230 from his perch at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration before being confirmed at the FCC. Now, former FCC officials say he and Carr will have to gingerly walk a line of condemning the tech platforms without seeming like they are condoning the rhetoric that led to Trump's suspensions or the takedown of Parler, the social networking site that was used in part to organize the violence.

"The reality is, these commissioners recognize that these events are a game-changer in the way people are talking about Section 230 and internet gatekeepers writ large," said one former FCC official. The official said the commissioners are staying mum for now because they are "cognizant of the fact that the conversation is so associated with that horrible attack." Capitalizing on it, the official said, would "[distract] from the core issue."

Last weekend, Simington was set to speak at a meetup in Las Vegas where right-wing speakers, including some on the party's fringe, discussed topics including "woke tech" and political censorship, but he backed out at the last minute. "Despite initial plans to do so, I did not attend or otherwise participate in the Claremont event this weekend, and I did not prepare or submit remarks," he told Protocol.

Simington's spokesperson declined to comment for this story.

Experts who watch the FCC said it's unlikely that Simington or Carr will back off completely from talking about Section 230. "I don't think that this is going to go away," said Zach Graves, head of policy at the Lincoln Network, a right-leaning tech group. But he said they might strike a more conciliatory tone, particularly now that the Democrats will be in control. "What might happen is while [Republicans] are out of power, they might be more sophisticated in the kinds of policy recommendations they push for on tech," Graves said.

In one of his final acts as FCC chair, Republican Ajit Pai chose not to move forward with a rule-making on Section 230, which was laid out in Trump's social media executive order.

Carr, meanwhile, said that he believes it is within the FCC's jurisdiction to review the law, and he told reporters earlier this month that he plans to "continue to advocate for Section 230 reform." "It's clear we're having failures in different directions," Carr said.

Conservatives in recent weeks have particularly homed in on Amazon Web Services' decision to cut off service for Parler, a massive display of power for the cloud company that typically functions more as neutral infrastructure than a platform with content moderation policies. The former FCC official predicted that will be the next turn in the conversation about internet freedom within the FCC. "I think [Simington and Carr] will be careful in the way they engage with that, trying to make sure they're not seen as defending Parler, but really talking about the future of internet freedom," the official said.

Another former FCC official told Protocol that they believe what AWS did to Parler "will become part of the net neutrality debate. I think conservatives are going to [say], 'OK, great, want to talk about net neutrality and free speech on the internet? Let's talk about cloud and web-hosting.'"

Democrats on the Commission, meanwhile, have made it clear that they do not believe the FCC should play a role in dictating the future of platform speech issues, including Section 230. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who Biden chose to serve as acting chair Thursday, told Protocol last year that it is "not a provision where Congress specifically asked us to enact rules, nor has the FCC had a history of acting in this area."

Mignon Clyburn, who worked with Carr during her tenure as an FCC commissioner in 2018 and remains close to the agency, said the events on Capitol Hill illustrated that social media platforms have "been used to weaponize hate" and "spread mis- and disinformation." But she doesn't think the FCC has the ability to take on Section 230.

"Does [Section 230] need a refresh?" Clyburn said. "Does it need modification? I think that it would be a prudent and worthy exercise to answer those questions — and that job, respectfully, is Congress'."

Protocol | Policy

5 things to know about FCC nominee Gigi Sohn

The veteran of some of the earliest tech policy fights is a longtime consumer champion and net-neutrality advocate.

Gigi Sohn, who President Joe Biden nominated to serve on the FCC, is a longtime net-neutrality advocate.

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

President Joe Biden on Tuesday nominated Gigi Sohn to serve as a Federal Communications Commissioner, teeing up a Democratic majority at the agency that oversees broadband issues after months of delay.

Like Lina Khan, who Biden picked in June to head up the Federal Trade Commission, Sohn is a progressive favorite. And if confirmed, she'll take up a position in an agency trying to pull policy levers on net neutrality, privacy and broadband access even as Congress is stalled.

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Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

If you've ever tried to pick up a new fitness routine like running, chances are you may have fallen into the "motivation vs. habit" trap once or twice. You go for a run when the sun is shining, only to quickly fall off the wagon when the weather turns sour.

Similarly, for many businesses, 2020 acted as the storm cloud that disrupted their plans for innovation. With leaders busy grappling with the pandemic, innovation frequently got pushed to the backburner. In fact, according to McKinsey, the majority of organizations shifted their focus mainly to maintaining business continuity throughout the pandemic.

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Adobe wants a more authentic NFT world

Adobe's Content Credentials feature will allow Creative Cloud subscribers to attach edit-tracking information to Photoshop files. The goal is to create a more trustworthy NFT market and digital landscape.

Adobe's Content Credentials will allow users to attach their identities to an image

Image: Adobe

Remember the viral, fake photo of Kurt Cobain and Biggie Smalls that duped and delighted the internet in 2017? Doctored images manipulate people and erode trust and we're not great at spotting them. The entire point of the emerging NFT art market is to create valuable and scarce digital files and when there isn't an easy way to check for an image's origin and edits, there's a problem. What if someone steals an NFT creator's image and pawns it off as their own? As a hub for all kinds of multimedia, Adobe feels a responsibility to combat misinformation and provide a safe space for NFT creators. That's why it's rolling out Content Credentials, a record that can be attached to a Photoshop file of a creator's identity and includes any edits they made.

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Lizzy Lawrence

Lizzy Lawrence ( @LizzyLaw_) is a reporter at Protocol, covering tools and productivity in the workplace. She's a recent graduate of the University of Michigan, where she studied sociology and international studies. She served as editor in chief of The Michigan Daily, her school's independent newspaper. She's based in D.C., and can be reached at llawrence@protocol.com.

Protocol | China

Why another Chinese lesbian dating app just shut down

With neither political support nor a profitable business model, lesbian dating apps are finding it hard to survive in China.

Operating a dating app for LGBTQ+ communities in China is like walking a tightrope.

Photo: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images

When Lesdo, a Chinese dating app designed for lesbian women, announced it was closing down, it didn't come as a surprise to the LGBTQ+ community.

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Zeyi Yang
Zeyi Yang is a reporter with Protocol | China. Previously, he worked as a reporting fellow for the digital magazine Rest of World, covering the intersection of technology and culture in China and neighboring countries. He has also contributed to the South China Morning Post, Nikkei Asia, Columbia Journalism Review, among other publications. In his spare time, Zeyi co-founded a Mandarin podcast that tells LGBTQ stories in China. He has been playing Pokemon for 14 years and has a weird favorite pick.

The Oura Ring was a sleep-tracking hit. Can the next one be even more?

Oura wants to be a media company, an activity tracker and even a way to know you're sick before you feel sick.

Over the last few years, the Oura Ring has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch.

Photo: Oura

Oura CEO Harpreet Rai swears he didn't know Kim Kardashian was a fan. He was as surprised as anyone when she started posting screenshots from the Oura app to her Instagram story, and got into a sleep battle with fellow Oura user Gwyneth Paltrow. Or when Jennifer Aniston revealed that Jimmy Kimmel got her hooked on Oura … and how her ring fell off in a salad. "I am addicted to it," Aniston said, "and it's ruining my life" by shaming her about her lack of sleep. "I think we're definitely seeing traction outside of tech," Rai said. "Which is cool."

Over the last couple of years, Oura's ring (imaginatively named the Oura Ring) has become one of the most recognizable wearables this side of the Apple Watch. The company started with a Kickstarter campaign in 2015, but really started to find traction with its second-generation model in 2018. It's not exactly a mainstream device — Oura said it has sold more than 500,000 rings, up from 150,000 in March 2020 but still not exactly Apple Watch levels — but it has reached some of the most successful, influential and probably sleep-deprived people in the industry. Jack Dorsey is a professed fan, as is Marc Benioff.

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David Pierce

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