Republican Brendan Carr of the Federal Communications Commission is cheering on President Trump’s attack on Big Tech this week. The commissioner also accused social media platforms of bias against the president and of trying to swing the 2020 presidential election.
“This is really welcome news,” Carr told Dobbs. “Since the 2016 election, the far left has hopped from hoax to hoax to hoax to explain how it lost to President Trump at the ballot box. One thing they’ve done is look to social media platforms and they’ve put pressure on them for the crime, in their view, of staying neutral in the 2016 election and they’re committed to not letting those platforms stay neutral in the run-up to 2020. So this step by President Trump shines a light on some of that activity and tees up some steps that can be taken.”
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) May 28, 2020
“Twitter made the decision to take on the president of the United States in a partisan, political debate and it did so in a really disingenuous way,” Carr added, saying that Trump was right to warn of voter fraud in mail-in ballots. In a tweet today, Carr accused Twitter of “punishing speakers based on whether it approves or disapproves of their politics.” He’s been making similar arguments for months.
“If they go after the president, who are they going after next?” Carr said in a separate interview about Twitter, also on Fox.
Chairman Ajit Pai takes measured tone
Carr’s enthusiasm for Trump’s executive order is significant because the FCC would be tasked with implementing part of it. Trump’s order calls on the FCC to “expeditiously propose regulations to clarify” Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act in order to limit social media platforms’ legal protections for hosting third-party content when the platforms take down content they consider objectionable.
The FCC’s power to do this is limited, as we explained in an in-depth article on Trump’s order today. And Carr may be alone among the five FCC commissioners in actually wanting to carry out Trump’s wishes. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai didn’t carry out Trump’s call in 2017 to revoke broadcast licenses from stations whose news coverage Trump disliked. Pai did question Twitter’s moderation decisions in a tweet today, but he is generally against imposing new regulations.
“This debate is an important one,” Pai said yesterday. “The Federal Communications Commission will carefully review any petition for rulemaking filed by the Department of Commerce.”
Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly wrote on Twitter that Trump “has [the] right to seek review of [the] statute’s application. As a conservative, I’m troubled voices are stifled by liberal tech leaders. At [the] same time, I’m extremely dedicated to First Amendment which governs much here.”
FCC Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel blasted Trump, saying, “an Executive Order that would turn the Federal Communications Commission into the President’s speech police is not the answer. It’s time for those in Washington to speak up for the First Amendment. History won’t be kind to silence.”
Even if the Pai-led FCC doesn’t do much in response to Trump’s order, Carr’s full-throated support for Trump could help him win the job of FCC chairman in 2021 if the president wins re-election. Pai wouldn’t have to step down, but FCC chairs traditionally end their terms after a presidential election even if the same party stays in power. If Trump wins a second term and Pai leaves the FCC, Trump could appoint Carr to be the chairman. Unlike nominations for people who aren’t yet on the commission, which require Senate approval, the president can promote a commissioner to chair unilaterally.
Carr says Facebook is trying to “tilt an election”
The White House Twitter account posted the video of Carr’s interview with Dobbs, and Carr retweeted that. In the interview, Carr criticized Facebook’s oversight board, saying, “If you were to hand-pick a group to tilt an election against the incumbent president, I don’t think it would look much different than the oversight board that Facebook has put together.” Carr previously called the Facebook board “your new speech police” in one of his many tweets about what he considers censorship on social media websites.
Dobbs was in full agreement with Carr. “It’s ridiculous some of the comments that have resulted from the Twitter folks trying to explain their idiotic attempts to limit the free speech of the president of the United States. It cannot be condoned rationally, can it?” Dobbs said. Dobbs also said that Trump “served notice, more than sufficient notice, that he was not going to be trifled with by Big Tech, pencil-neck geeks in the form of one [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey, who has tried to become his nemesis in Silicon Valley.”
Carr conflated free speech on Twitter with the First Amendment, despite the fact that the First Amendment only prevents government-imposed restrictions on free speech (not restrictions from private companies). “Every speaker in this country has a First Amendment right to free speech,” Carr said in the statement he issued on the FCC website. In the Fox interview with Dobbs, Carr continued:
Here’s what’s really important about the president’s executive order: Everybody has free speech, First Amendment rights. What’s different about these platforms is that Congress in the 1990s afforded them a very special and unique legal liability and protection that all other political actors don’t enjoy. That maybe made sense when you had the Prodigy messaging board that was in Congress’s mind. But flash-forward 20 years, these are now the largest, most powerful corporations when it comes to speech. So I think it’s entirely appropriate for the president to say, is it time to take another look at Section 230 and whether that makes sense, given where we are today.
Carr also accused social media websites of misleading the public about how they apply content moderation. “If you’re any other type of business and you represent to Congress and the public that you’re a neutral platform, and you engage in some of the conduct that we’re seeing, you’d be held liable for an unfair business practice at that point,” he said. Carr, who was the FCC’s general counsel before becoming a commissioner in 2017, said that he wants “a neutral application of terms of service to all Americans.”
While Carr supports Trump’s attempted crackdown on social-media websites, he has consistently fought against consumer-protection rules for broadband providers that the FCC regulates. When Carr voted to kill net neutrality rules, which prohibit ISPs from blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, he said, “I am proud to help end this two-year experiment with heavy-handed regulation—this massive regulatory overreach.” That vote ended the policy of regulating ISPs as common carriers and eliminated other consumer protections such as rules against hidden fees and a process for consumers to file complaints about unjust or unreasonable prices and practices.
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