New US President Biden has promoted FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to chair the regulator and the policing of social media is likely to be her biggest single task.
Given her experience as an FCC Commissioner, Rosenworcel seems like a good appointment. She will presumably have a significant role in filling the position she vacates. That new Commissioner will be expected to join fellow Democrat-affiliated Commissioner Starks in supporting Rosenworcel’s and Biden’s agenda.
The FCC is now probably more politicised than ever. While this is partly down to the rabidly partisan nature of US politics, the main reason is the extent to which telecoms and the internet became central to much of the political drama, both internal and external, during the previous administration. Not only did Trump use the telecoms sector as a vanguard for his trade war with China, he also accused social media companies of political censorship and attempted to intervene to prevent it.
While Biden has been busy throwing executive orders around like confetti during his first few days in the Oval Office, there has been little mention of China, let alone Huawei, so that matter seems to be on the back burner for now. The appointment of Rosenworcel, however, would appear to indicate that Biden has different views on the matter of reforming Section 230.
Rosenworcel has always opposed any involvement of the FCC in the reform of Section 230, so her appointment presumably closes that chapter for the regulator. But the matter of social media regulation isn’t going to go away. Democrats are also alarmed by the unaccountable monopolistic power of the internet giants and many seem unconvinced by the scapegoating of Parler as the only place civil disturbances like the Capitol riot are organized.
The main argument employed by Rosenworcel in her opposition to calls for the FCC to get involved in Section 230 is a simple freedom of speech one, leaning heavily on the First Amendment. “While social media can be frustrating, turning the FCC into the President’s speech police is not the answer,” said Rosenworcel in a speech at the time. “The FCC needs to reject this effort to deploy the federal government against free expression online. In fact, if we honour the Constitution, we will do so immediately.”
It’s hard to argue with any of that, but it doesn’t address the fact that free expression online is now largely policed by a few internet platforms, to whom the First Amendment doesn’t apply. If Rosenworcel is so keen on free speech then her FCC needs to do something about that or her words will be nothing more than empty rhetoric. “It is a privilege to serve the American people and work on their behalf to expand the reach of communications opportunity in the digital age,” said Rosenworcel upon her appointment. Let’s hope she meant it.