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U.S. Justice Department Proposes Major Changes to Social Media and Content Providers’ Immunity

Phillip Dampier September 23, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters 1 Comment

Barr

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump met with nine Republican attorneys general on Wednesday to discuss the fate of a legal immunity for internet companies after the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal aimed at reforming the same law.

Trump met with state attorneys general from Texas, Arizona, Utah, Louisiana, Arkansas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Missouri and West Virginia.

The White House said they discussed how the attorneys general can utilize existing legal recourses at the state level – in an effort to weaken the law known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects internet companies from liability over content posted by users.

After the meeting, Trump told reporters he expects to come to a conclusion on the issue of technology platforms within a short period. It was not immediately clear what conclusion he was referring to.

He also said his administration is watching the performance of tech platforms in the run-up to the Nov. 3 presidential election.

“In recent years, a small group of powerful technology platforms have tightened their grip over commerce and communications in America,” Trump said. “Every year countless Americans are banned, blacklisted and silenced through arbitrary or malicious enforcement of ever-shifting rules,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Justice Department unveiled a legislative proposal that seeks to reform Section 230. It followed through on Trump’s bid earlier this year to crack down on tech giants after Twitter Inc placed warning labels on Trump tweets, saying they have included potentially misleading information about mail-in voting.

The Justice Department’s bill would need congressional approval and is not likely to see action until next year at the earliest. There are several pieces of legislation doing the rounds in Congress that seek to curb the same immunity. It was not immediately clear whether the Justice Department will support any single piece of legislation that has already been proposed.

Any such bill would have to win the support of the Republicans who control the Senate and the Democrats who control the House of Representatives in order to become law. Such legislation’s future would be further complicated if the Democrats regain control of the Senate or win the White House.

The Justice Department proposal primarily states that when internet companies “willfully distribute illegal material or moderate content in bad faith, Section 230 should not shield them from the consequences of their actions.”

It proposes a series of reforms to ensure internet companies are transparent about their decisions when removing content and when they should be held responsible for speech they modify. It also revises existing definitions of Section 230 with more concrete language that offers more guidance to users and courts.

It also incentivizes online platforms to address illicit content and pushes for more clarity on federal civil enforcement actions.

Attorney General William Barr said in a statement the administration was urging “Congress to make these necessary reforms to Section 230 and begin to hold online platforms accountable both when they unlawfully censor speech and when they knowingly facilitate egregious criminal activity online.”

In June, the Justice Department proposed that Congress take up legislation to curb this immunity. This was after Trump in May signed an executive order that seeks new regulatory oversight of tech firms’ content moderation decisions and backed legislation to scrap or weaken Section 230.

Trump in May also directed the Commerce Department to file a petition asking the Federal Communications Commission to limit protections under Section 230. The petition is still pending.

The Internet Association – a group representing major internet companies including Facebook, Amazon.com, and Google, said the Justice Department’s proposal would severely limit people’s ability to express themselves and have a safe experience online.

The group’s deputy general counsel, Elizabeth Banker, said moderation efforts that remove misinformation, platform manipulation and cyberbullying would all result in lawsuits under this proposal.

Reporting by David Shepardson and Nandita Bose in Washington; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Diane Bartz and Eric Beech in Washington and Ayanti Bera in Bengaluru; editing by Patrick Graham, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis

Trump Nominates Ally to Push FCC Towards Social Media Regulation

Phillip Dampier September 16, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

Simington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, pressing for new social media regulations, plans to nominate a senior administration official to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the White House said on Tuesday.

The nomination of Nathan Simington, a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), comes after the White House abruptly announced in early August it was withdrawing the nomination of Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly to serve another term.

Trump issued an executive order in May requiring the NTIA to petition the FCC asking the commission to impose new regulations on social media moderation practices after Twitter Inc warned readers to fact-check his posts about unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in mail-in voting.

Simington helped draft the May executive order, the Washington Post reported.

By contrast, O’Rielly expressed skepticism about whether the FCC had authority to issue new regulations covering social media companies. In July, he said the “the First Amendment protects us from limits on speech imposed by the government – not private actors – and we should all reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way.”

O’Rielly, who has not commented on the White House withdrawal of his name, congratulated Simington Tuesday in a Twitter post on his nomination “and offer best wishes for a smooth confirmation process and successful term.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai opened NTIA’s petition to public comment. The comment period expires this week. He has declined to comment on its merits.

A group representing major internet companies including Facebook Inc and Amazon.com Inc urged the FCC to reject the petition, saying the effort “is misguided, lacks grounding in law, and poses serious public policy concerns.”

NTIA asked the FCC to limit protections for social media companies under Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts.

Reporting by David Shepardson and Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Cushing

Verizon Buying Prepaid Mobile Provider Tracfone in $6.25 Billion Deal

Phillip Dampier September 14, 2020 Competition, Consumer News, Reuters, TracFone, Verizon 2 Comments

(Reuters) – Verizon Communications said on Monday it will buy pre-paid mobile phones provider Tracfone, a unit of Mexican telecoms giant America Movil in a $6.25 billion cash and stock deal.

Tracfone, which serves about 21 million subscribers through more than 90,000 retail locations across the United States, said more than 13 million of its subscribers rely on Verizon’s network under an existing agreement. Verizon is the largest U.S. wireless carrier by subscribers.

The U.S. wireless industry is concentrated in the hands of three mobile carriers due to several mergers in recent years: T-Mobile, which in April completed its $23 billion merger with Sprint to solidify its position in the United States; AT&T, and Verizon.

America Movil, which was created from a state monopoly, is Mexico’s largest telecoms operator by far and is controlled by the family of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, the Latin American nation’s richest man.

Verizon has not historically invested in prepaid compared with its rivals, such as T-Mobile, which revamped its MetroPCS prepaid brand and bought Sprint, which had a large prepaid business.

Verizon’s purchase of Tracfone comes at a time when the pandemic has ravaged the economy and Americans are cutting back on spending.

Tracfone had become popular with the lower end of the ultra-competitive U.S. telecoms consumer market and Verizon plans to provide new products for that segment after this “strategic acquisition,” said Hans Vestberg, chairman and chief executive of Verizon.

“This transaction firmly establishes Verizon, through the Tracfone brands, as the provider of choice in the value segment, which complements our clear leadership in the premium segment,” added Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group CEO, Verizon Consumer Group.

Shares of Verizon were up more than 1% in morning trading. American Movil shares jumped more than 3.5% when the Mexican market opened.

The deal includes $3.125 billion in cash and $3.125 billion in Verizon stock.

Credit Suisse is acting as financial adviser to Verizon on the deal, which is expected to close in the second half of 2021.

Reporting by Ayanti Bera in Bengaluru and Drazen Jorgic in Mexico City; Additional reporting by Sheila Dang; Editing by Vinay Dwivedi, Will Dunham and Dan Grebler

Trump Administration Wants FCC to Regulate Social Media Networks, Impose New Rules

Phillip Dampier July 28, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

President Trump

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. Commerce Department agency on Monday petitioned the Federal Communications Commission to reinterpret a 1996 law to require transparency in how social media companies moderate content, after President Donald Trump asked it to intervene in the matter.

Trump directed the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to file the petition after Twitter in May warned readers to fact-check his posts about unsubstantiated claims of fraud in mail-in voting.

Trump’s executive order asked the NTIA to petition the FCC to write regulations stemming from Section 230, a provision of the Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts.

The NTIA said in Monday’s petition it wants the FCC to require social media firms to “publicly disclose accurate information regarding its content-management mechanisms” to “enable users to make more informed choices about competitive alternatives.”

Trump, a Republican who is running for re-election on Nov. 3, has repeatedly expressed anger at social media companies. On Monday, he said Twitter’s trending topics feature was unfair.

“They look for anything they can find, make it as bad as possible, and blow it up, trying to make it trend,” he wrote.

Both Democratic commissioners on the five-member FCC said the commission should quickly reject the petition.

“The FCC shouldn’t take this bait. While social media can be frustrating, turning this agency into the President’s speech police is not the answer,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a written statement.

Republican Commissioner Brendan Carr said the “petition provides an opportunity to bring much-needed clarity to the statutory text.”

Twitter has called Trump’s executive order “a reactionary and politicized approach to a landmark law.”

A spokesman for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who has said in the past he does not see a role for the FCC to regulate websites like Twitter, Facebook or Alphabet’s Google, said on Monday the agency “will carefully review the petition.”

The FCC could take a year or longer to finalize any rules.

Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a Georgetown University lecturer, said Trump was on shaky legal ground.

“The FCC has no authority to interpret Section 230, and even if it did, the rule that Trump wants is utterly incompatible with the plain language of the statute,” he said.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler and Sonya Hepinstall

Comcast Launches Peacock TV With Plenty to Watch for Free

(Reuters) – Comcast-owned NBCUniversal entered a crowded streaming market today by launching its Peacock streaming service nationally, offering 20,000 hours of content, including NBC shows such as “30 Rock,” “Cheers” and “Saturday Night Live.”

The service, which became available to some Comcast subscribers in April, is the media giant’s effort to offset declines in Comcast’s cable TV business – while finding a new way to monetize NBC and Universal content and maintain demand for the company’s broadband business, which powers streaming services.

Peacock will include a mix of NBC series, sports, news and original shows – such as the dystopian drama “Brave New World” and documentary “In Deep with Ryan Lochte” – as well as content it licenses from ViacomCBS and other networks and studios.

The service will also be available on Sony’s PlayStation 4 gaming console from July 20, Peacock said on Tuesday.

Unlike the majority of its streaming rivals, Peacock is offering a free, ad-supported version, which will include 13,000 hours of programming. NBCUniversal hopes to lure advertisers through the vast amounts of data it can use to target commercials based on viewers’ interests, including data from Comcast’s cable TV set-top boxes.

Peacock also has two paid options: a $4.99 per month service with commercials and 20,000 hours of programming; and an ad-free version costing $9.99 per month.

NBCUniversal missed the opportunity to market Peacock during its broadcast of the Tokyo Summer Olympics, which were postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak. And as the last entry to the streaming war, Peacock will be competing for streaming dollars with services such as Netflix, Walt Disney-owned Disney+ and Amazon.com’s Amazon Prime Video.

But Peacock’s free option could be a draw for viewers who have already maxed out their monthly entertainment budgets, at a time when U.S. viewers stuck at home are hungry for more content.

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