Florida Law Seeks to Rein in Social Media Giants

But the bill might violate the First Amendment.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to local TV reporter's question, MARC building, Florida International University, Miami, May 24, 2021.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis responds to local TV reporter's question, MARC building, Florida International University, Miami, May 24, 2021.
Carl Juste/Miami Herald via AP

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday that seeks to punish social media platforms that remove “conservative ideas” from their sites, though it is not clear if it would pass constitutional muster because it might violate the First Amendment.

The new law will enable the state to fine large social media companies $250,000 a day if they remove an account of a statewide political candidate, and $25,000 a day if they remove an account of someone running for a local office. It takes effect July 1.

“Some of these massive, massive companies in Silicon Valley are exerting a power over our population that really has no precedent in American history,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing ceremony at Florida International University in Miami. “One of their major missions seems to be suppressing ideas.”

But it’s questionable whether Florida will be able to enforce it. Federal law prevents internet companies from being sued for removing posts and federal law trumps state law when there is a conflict.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act exempts websites from being sued for removing content deemed to be “obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, excessively violent, harassing, or otherwise objectionable” as long as the companies are acting in “good faith.”

DeSantis said big tech companies are controlling accounts to remove content that doesn't suit their ideology. Republicans have accused companies like Twitter and Facebook of censoring conservative thought. DeSantis pointed in particular to then-President Donald Trump being banned by Twitter while still allowing Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to maintain an account.

“When you de-platform the president of the United States but you let Ayatollah Khamenei talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” DeSantis said to thunderous applause.

Twitter didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Facebook declined to comment.

But the tech lobbying group NetChoice, which includes Twitter and Facebook as members, criticized the new law in a press release.

“By forcing websites to host speech, this bill takes us closer to a state-run internet where the government can cherry pick winners and losers,” said NetChoice vice president and lawyer Carl Szabo. “By carving out companies like Disney and Universal, Florida’s legislature revealed its anti-tech fervor and true intent to punish social media for allegations of anti-conservative bias.”

The law will give Florida's attorney general authority to sue companies under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It will also allow individual Floridians to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they feel they've been treated unfairly.

The bill targets social media platforms that have more than 100 million monthly users, which include online giants as Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers carved out an exception for Disney and their apps by including that theme park owners wouldn’t be subject to the law.

The law will require large social media companies to publish standards on how it decides to “censor, deplatform, and shadow ban.”

Regardless of the federal law, the new Florida law is constitutionally flawed, said Computer and Communications Industry Association President Matt Schruers.

“Gov. DeSantis says that this bill is about protecting free expression, but an internet service saying, ‘We don’t want to host Nazis and people encouraging self-harm' is exercising its own First Amendment rights and that is one of the critical infirmities of this bill,” Schruers said.

Democrats opposed the bill and defended the right of social media companies, as private entities, to control the flow of information on their platforms. Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson said in a press release that the bill was passed in an effort to placate Trump.

“These enterprises take responsibility for what appears on their platforms and have the right to do so,” Gibson said. “Vulgarity and inciting violence are not their business model and our legislature should appreciate rather than legislate against such a concept.”

While similar bills have been filed in other states, DeSantis is the first governor to sign one into law.

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