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President Donald Trump looks at his phone during a roundtable with governors on the reopening of America's small businesses, in the State Dining Room of the White House, Thursday, June 18, 2020, in Washington.

The Associated Press

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.

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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.”

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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.

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