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FCC Republican backs Musk’s Twitter purchase, slams “restrictions on speech”


FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington sitting in front of a microphone at a Congressional hearing.
Enlarge / FCC Commissioner Nathan Simington testifies during a House committee hearing on March 31, 2022 in Washington, DC.

Federal Communications Commission member Nathan Simington says the FCC should “applaud” Elon Musk for buying Twitter, arguing that Musk’s “stated intention to ease Twitter’s restrictions on speech… would almost certainly enhance competition and better serve those Americans, the majority, who value free speech.”

“The FCC cannot, and should not, block this sale,” Simington, one of two Republican commissioners on the FCC, said in a statement issued Monday. “We should instead applaud Mr. Musk for doing something about a serious problem that government has so far failed to address.” Simington was nominated to the FCC by then-President Donald Trump in 2020 to replace a Republican commissioner who objected to Trump’s demand that the FCC crack down on social media “censorship.”

There’s not much reason to think the FCC would try to block Musk’s pending $44 billion purchase of Twitter, as the commission’s authority over mergers and acquisitions is centered on transactions that involve FCC licenses. Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, hasn’t issued any statements on the Twitter sale. However, a group called the Open Markets Institute last week claimed that the FCC, Department of Justice, and Federal Trade Commission all have “ample authority” to block the sale.

The Open Markets Institute focuses on “platform monopolies” and says it was created in 2017 by people who used to work at New America’s Open Markets Program. The group argued that the sale of Twitter to Musk “poses a number of immediate and direct threats to American democracy and free speech,” and pointed out that “Musk already controls one of the most important Internet platforms in the world—in the form of the satellite communications system Starlink.”

The Open Markets statement drew a short rebuke from the FCC’s other Republican, Brendan Carr. Carr said, “The FCC has no authority to block Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter, and to suggest otherwise is absurd.”

Simington slams “censorious… content policies”

Simington provided a much longer statement, saying not only that the FCC can’t block the deal but also that “antitrust regulators should welcome this purchase” because “consumer choice and freedom have suffered due to the restrictive, and often politically motivated, content moderation practices adopted across all major social media platforms.”

Simington further called on other government agencies to investigate tech companies’ “censorious” content moderation. “I encourage my colleagues across the government to investigate the market failures and perverse incentives that caused big tech companies to standardize around censorious and slanted content policies in the first place,” he said.

Simington also said that “concerns about Mr. Musk controlling both Twitter and Starlink—a broadband provider currently serving less than 1 percent of Americans—cannot be taken seriously.”

Simington reportedly helped draft Trump social media order

Simington was nominated to the FCC by Trump in 2020 to replace Republican Michael O’Rielly. O’Rielly angered the former president by objecting to an executive order that urged the FCC to reinterpret Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act to limit social media platforms’ legal protections for hosting third-party content when the platforms moderate or take down posts they consider objectionable.

O’Rielly said the FCC must uphold First Amendment speech protections “that apply to corporate entities, especially when they engage in editorial decision-making.” O’Rielly also said at the time that he had “deep reservations” about whether the FCC had authority to act as Trump directed.

Simington was previously a senior advisor in the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), where he reportedly helped draft the Trump executive order. Trump claimed his plan was needed to fight “online censorship” and Twitter’s alleged “political bias.” Trump replacing O’Rielly with Simington seemed to be an attempt to push through the Section 230 action. Democratic lawmakers objected that Simington was “wholly unqualified” to serve on the FCC, but the Senate’s then-Republican majority confirmed the nomination in December 2020.

Carr enthusiastically supported Trump’s executive order. Then-Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement saying he would open a rule-making process to clarify that, despite the First Amendment, social media companies do not have “special immunity” for their content-moderation decisions. Pai dropped his plan after Trump’s election loss.

While Simington apparently supported Trump’s attempted social media crackdown despite groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation saying it violated the First Amendment, Simington this week emphasized the FCC’s lack of power over online platforms. “Nothing in the United States Code or our regulations gives us the right to interfere with this transaction,” Simington said. “Our competition review authority does not and has never extended to Internet platforms like Twitter.”



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