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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'."
Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.