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Ajit Pai kicks Section 230 can down the road

Outgoing FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said he won't pursue a rulemaking to offer more clarity on regulations that shield social media outlets and other tech companies from liability for what users post to their platforms.

That regulation, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, protects social media companies and other, similar interactive computer services from being held liable for materials posted by users considered to be obscene, violent or otherwise objectionable. Section 230 also gives the social media firms latitude on moderating content on their respective platforms.

Last fall Pai said he intended to push forward with such a rulemaking effort. But he changed his position after the November elections, the FCC chair said on the latest edition of The Communicators that ran on C-SPAN over the weekend.

"The status is that I do not intend to move forward with a notice of proposed rulemaking at the FCC," Pai said in an interview taped on Thursday, January 7. "The reason is, in part, because, given the results of the election, there is simply not sufficient time to complete the administrative steps necessary in order to resolve that rulemaking … Given that reality, I do not believe it's appropriate to move forward."

Pai does believe that there is now a consensus among officials that the law should be changed or repealed, but there's no telling yet how it might be pursued in the coming months and years.

"Obviously, the President believes it should be repealed; President-elect Biden has campaigned repeatedly on its repeal," said Pai, who has already confirmed he will exit his post on January 20, the date of Biden's inauguration. "But within Congress, there seems to be a consensus that it should be revised or reformed in some way … But I do think there are certain bipartisan consensus areas forming regarding how it should be revised."

Pai's comments came soon after President Trump was booted off both Twitter and Facebook in the wake of last Wednesday's riot at the US Capitol by Trump supporters and concerns that the President could use those platforms to incite more violence.

Pai said he would not second-guess the moves by Twitter and Facebook, given the circumstances of January 6. However, Pai stressed there's a need for more transparency on how decisions are made about how some content is allowed or not allowed to be presented on those platforms.

In the wake of the Twitter and Facebook decisions, Parler, an alternative social media platform billed as an "unbiased" outlet that has become popular among Trump supporters, has been effectively shut down temporarily. That follows decisions over the weekend by Google and Apple to remove Parler from their respective app stores, and by Amazon to disconnect Parler from its servers over concerns that Parler is not doing enough to prevent threats of violence and illegal activity via its platform.

Update: Parler filed a lawsuit against Amazon Monday on alleged antitrust violations and breach of contract. Parler is seeking a temporary restraining order against Amazon, calling the cloud giant's decision a "death blow."

Pai was asked if Trump, who has continued to falsely claim that the election was stolen from him, bears any responsibility for the violence at the Capitol on January 6. While Pai condemned the violence, he steered clear of pinning the blame directly on Trump, who nominated him for his post four years ago.

"The scenes we saw yesterday were outrageous and extremely disappointing to those of us who cherish American democracy, one hallmark of which is the peaceful transition of power," Pai said. "I think it was a terrible mistake to suggest that the results of the election, and particularly the process, that culminated yesterday in the Senate and the House, could in any way be changed … That was a terrible mistake and one that I do not believe should have been indulged."

He said the violent scenes that unfolded at the Capitol were "completely unacceptable, completely outrageous."

"We must be governed by the rule of law, not by the rule of the mob," Pai said. "Law and order must be restored, and democracy must be respected. I believe that to my core regardless of political affiliation or circumstance."

Network neutrality: Where do we go from here?

Pai said he has no intention to depart the FCC prior to January 20, noting that he will oversee the Commission's January 13 meeting, with the intention to focus on the accomplishments of the agency's staff during his tenure on issues such as 5G and the digital divide.

Pai declined to make a prediction about whether network neutrality rules would make a comeback under the Biden administration and a Democratic-controlled Senate and House. Under Pai, the FCC rolled back those rules in 2017.

"That's a determination for the next FCC to make," said Pai, who has not announced his post-FCC plans. "Obviously, I believe our decision was the right one based on the results we've gotten in terms of capital investment, for example."

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— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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