Dems Ask FCC If Trump Interfered In Social Media Probe

Law360 (October 28, 2020, 7:23 PM EDT) -- Two House Democrats have asked the Federal Communications Commission to clarify whether the White House or President Donald Trump's reelection campaign has interfered in a rulemaking that could crack down on perceived social media bias.

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., and telecom subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle, D-Pa., asked the FCC in a letter on Wednesday whether the agency has had any contact with the president or his campaign on the issue. 

The missive comes the same day that the heads of Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before the Senate Commerce Committee on the effectiveness of the statute at issue, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. 

"The American people deserve to know what conversations, if any, have transpired between you, your office and the White House to ensure the integrity of the FCC," the lawmakers wrote in the letter, addressed to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

The Trump administration, via a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, previously asked the FCC to step in and define a provision of Section 230 that dictates when websites are not exempt from lawsuits over user-generated content. The Trump administration wants the shield to be revoked when companies display perceived biases in their moderation practices, such as removing content without explanation.

The administration has said it believes sites like Twitter and Facebook discriminate against conservative viewpoints, and Trump issued an underlying executive order shortly after Twitter labeled a pair of his tweets about mail-in voting as inaccurate. The timing of this edict raises red flags for House Democrats, according to Pallone and Doyle's letter.

"It wasn't until online platforms began fact-checking the President's content that he and his Administration began an aggressive campaign to persuade the FCC to dictate how online platforms moderate content," the lawmakers wrote.

When FCC Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly subtly criticized the administration's push for the FCC to take up the issue, Trump subsequently revoked his nomination to another term.

"It appears the Administration is willing to retaliate against those who do not get in line with its agenda," Pallone and Doyle wrote.

The FCC then agreed to take up the rulemaking a day after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas suggested it's time to rein in the so-called Big Tech liability shield. As it stands, the Democrats said they have "significant concerns" that the independent agency's actions could be viewed as being heavily influenced by the White House.

"As an independent Federal regulatory agency, the FCC is not a part of the Executive branch and instead, is responsible directly to Congress. As such, the FCC should avoid even the appearance of acting on behalf of the President," according to the letter.

Pallone and Doyle asked Pai's office to disclose whether the White House or the Trump campaign has contacted the FCC chairman's office and general counsel, including inquiries about the status of the proceeding that wouldn't ordinarily be reported under the FCC's disclosure rules.

The letter also asks whether the FCC has reached out to anyone from the White House or the Trump campaign about the matter.

According to the letter, responses from the FCC are due Nov. 2, the day before Election Day.

--Editing by Nicole Bleier.

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