Florida governor DeSantis signs bill targeting social media platforms

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis took a swipe at Big Tech on Monday as he signed a hot-button state bill targeting how digital platforms moderate online content.

The legislation marks one of the biggest steps yet by a Republican governor to act on allegations of online censorship at the hands of companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

But tech industry critics say the legislation is unconstitutional, setting the stage for a court battle over the law.

In public remarks on Monday, DeSantis blamed a “council of censors” in Silicon Valley for shutting down debate over Covid-19 lockdowns and the origins of the coronavirus.

“I would say those lockdowns have ruined millions of people’s lives all around this country,” DeSantis said. “Wouldn’t it have been good to have a full debate on that in our public square? But that was not what Silicon Valley wanted to do.”

The bill DeSantis signed prohibits tech platforms from suspending or banning political candidates in the state, with possible fines of $250,000 per day if the de-platformed candidate is seeking statewide office and $25,000 per day if the candidate is running for a non-statewide office.

The legislation also gives Florida residents the ability to sue tech companies for de-platforming. Similar bills have also been considered in states such as Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Utah.

Florida’s bill comes as US lawmakers have proposed significant changes to the federal law that gives tech platforms the legal leeway to curate their platforms without being sued. The federal law, Section 230 of the Communications Act of 1934, has come under attack by Democrats who argue platforms benefit from the law’s immunity protections without doing enough to rein in offensive content, while Republicans argue the platforms restrict too much content.

Tech industry officials have repeatedly denied blocking or removing content over political ideology. Many tech platforms have policies that prohibit the spreading of coronavirus misinformation or falsehoods about the 2020 election, and some high-profile Republicans, such as former President Donald Trump, have run afoul of those policies, resulting in their suspension from major online platforms.

Florida’s legislation will force tech platforms to step back from moderating their sites due to the threat of litigation by “any internet user, from foreign extremists to disgruntled internet trolls,” said the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group.

In an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel, CCIA president Matt Schruers, wrote that lawsuits were sure to follow: “Florida taxpayers will also end up paying their share in the cost of enforcing new regulations, and for the inevitable legal challenges that will come along with the legislature’s effort to adopt a law with glaring constitutional challenges.”

CCIA also raised its eyebrows over a highly controversial provision in the bill that exempts the websites of theme park operators, which some critics have interpreted as a special carve-out for Disney. (Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal and operates the Universal Orlando theme park, may also appear to be covered by the exemption.)

Questions about the bill’s constitutionality are rooted in First Amendment cases prohibiting the government from compelling speech by private entities.

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution — backstopped by Section 230 — makes it abundantly clear that states have no power to compel private companies to host speech, especially from politicians,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a co-author of Section 230, in a statement regarding the signing on the Florida bill.

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