TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis laid out a top policy priority on Thursday, but it wasn’t shoring up the economy or slowing the spread of the coronavirus. Nor was it stopping protests from turning into riots.
DeSantis said his top legislative goal “to get right” in 2021 and beyond is to prevent the censorship of conservatives online by technology behemoths like Google, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon, which isn’t an issue that Florida’s government has the ability to control.
“We need to really think deeply about if we are a disfavored class based on our principles, based on having conservative views, based on being a Christian, based on whatever you can say that is not favored in Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said during a speech before a crowd of conservatives in Austin, Tx. Later, he added: “I think it’s probably the most important legislative issue that we’re going to have to get right this year and next year.”
The Republican governor’s remarks were delivered at a conference convened by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. He complained in particular about the action taken against Parler, an alternative to Twitter that brands itself as a home for free speech and was growing in popularity among conservatives. On Jan. 6, a President Donald Trump-supporting insurrectionist mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, which led to five deaths. In the wake of the attack, Amazon Web Services, which kept Parler online, stopped hosting the site. That action rendered Parler essentially inoperable for users — and it’s unclear when the site might come back online.
Parler sued Amazon in federal court, alleging the tech giant had breached its contract.
For weeks leading up to the Jan. 6 attack, Amazon had been notifying Parler that the company needed to do a better job of policing hate speech and violent threats on its platform, lawyers for Amazon said in a recent court filing. Parler users openly called for election-related violence on the app, ProPublica has reported. Some Parler users posted to the site while storming the Capitol, Gizmodo found.
To DeSantis, tech companies’ treatment of Parler was more evidence that conservative viewpoints aren’t welcome on the largest online platforms. In addition to Amazon’s action, the app is no longer available on the Apple or Google stores. Many of those same platforms also banned Trump, who still holds office for six more days, from posting.
“They decapitated this company, Parler,” DeSantis said. “This was a coordinated assault on a company that was trying to compete.”
In response to what happened to Parler, DeSantis called for the government to regulate technology companies more closely. In Florida, at least, that is going to be difficult — if not impossible. As DeSantis noted, large companies are not subject to the Constitution’s First Amendment, which protects government incursion on free speech. And the companies operate across state lines, making the regulatory landscape a federal issue. Unless the United States government steps in, Twitter, Facebook and other social media companies will likely continue controlling who gets to use their platforms.
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This week two Florida legislators said they are drafting legislation that will retaliate against the companies for engaging in what they call “selective censorship” of conservative opinions by the social media platforms.
State Sen. Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican, filed SB 520, which would require social media websites to give 30-day notice to a user whose account has been disabled or suspended and explain why the user was punished. He next wants to amend the bill to prohibit social media censorship.
Rep. Randy Fine, a Brevard County Republican, wrote a letter to letter to DeSantis and the Cabinet on Tuesday, urging them to divest the state’s billion-dollar pension fund of any stock it holds in Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Apple and Alphabet (Google). He said he is also drafting legislation to prohibit state agencies for doing business with the companies for what he sees is “selective censorship” of conservative views.
But neither DeSantis or the Republican lawmakers took note of the fact that platform censorship is allowed by the First Amendment and has been upheld in U.S. Supreme Court rulings, including by conservative justices. Any state legislation to regulate censorship on social media platforms would have to sidestep a constitutional challenge.
Nevertheless, DeSantis promised movement on the issue.
“We’re going to take action, I think you’re going to see Texas want to take action,” DeSantis said, offering no specifics.
And in a rare acknowledgement of the incoming Joe Biden administration, DeSantis added: “I doubt you’re going to see very much from the federal government in terms of taking action.”