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Florida should stop doing business with Big Tech, China, Republicans say

The legislation is filed jointly by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the state GOP chair, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay.
State Senator Joe Gruters (R) District 23 gives opening remarks before Vice President Mike Pence gives a campaign speech during the "Keep America Great" rally at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, January 16, 2020.
State Senator Joe Gruters (R) District 23 gives opening remarks before Vice President Mike Pence gives a campaign speech during the "Keep America Great" rally at the Venetian Event Center at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in Tampa, Florida on Thursday, January 16, 2020. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 26
Updated Jan. 26

TALLAHASSEE — The chairman of the Republican Party of Florida filed a bill Tuesday to stop state and local governments from doing business with some of the conservative movement’s top enemies: Facebook, Google, Twitter, Apple, Amazon and the People’s Republic of China.

The bill, filed jointly by Sen. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, the state GOP chair, and Rep. Randy Fine, R-Palm Bay, has two main parts. It prohibits state and local governments from entering into any contract that includes purchasing products made at least 25 percent in China starting in 2023. And starting on July 1, 2021, no state agency or local government is allowed to purchase a product or service from those five technology companies.

The bill stipulates that Florida governments would not be allowed to acquire “any good or service made, sold, or provided” by the five tech companies — a sweeping change that would have profound effects on how officials all over the state conduct their business.

The bill’s sponsors say the measure is aimed at punishing China for its role in the spread of the coronavirus. The nation covered up the extent of the disease early on, which resulted in its global spread, Fine said. The resulting pandemic and its related economic devastation has left Florida with about a $3 billion budget hole.

Separately, the bill’s authors say, technology companies must be punished for stifling conservative speech online.

“If they are a private business, they do get to choose who they do business with,” Gruters said at a news conference on the steps of the old Florida Capitol. “As the state of Florida, we can also choose who we do business with.”

Conservatives, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, have been sharply critical of technology companies. DeSantis called stopping online censorship of conservatives his top legislative priority earlier this month.

In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead, most every major online platform banned then-President Donald Trump from posting online. Those companies claimed he had incited the violence by spreading the false claim that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him.

Amazon, Apple and Google — whose parent company, Alphabet, is named in the bill — took measures to remove the social media site Parler from their online services or stores after the Capitol attack. Parler, which brands itself as a free-speech Twitter alternative, did not adequately cull its platform of dangerous speech in the run-up to the violence, Amazon said in a court filing. Several Parler users posted from inside the Capitol as it was being stormed.

Twitter has also taken steps to purge its platform of others who spread misinformation. Earlier this month, the platform suspended more than 70,000 accounts who had spread the QAnon conspiracy theory.

Gruters bemoaned the loss of those Twitter accounts at the news conference. He and Fine hope the economic action taken by the state will force the technology companies to rethink their policies.

“It’s about not suppressing conservative voices. It’s about letting people like President Trump back on Twitter. It’s about letting like the 70,000 conservative voices that have already been suppressed back on Twitter,” Gruters said.

Numerous agencies spend untold millions on contracts with the technology giants named in the bill’s short pages. To give just one example, the state’s Department of Health spent about $55,000 on a June Facebook advertising campaign warning Floridians to avoid places where they may be at high risk of contracting the coronavirus. Such an expenditure would be banned under the law.

Fine said he did not know the extent of the state’s contracting with the companies named in the bill.

“We have not done exact numbers, but in many cases, they are not all that substantial. In some cases, they are. We don’t do business with these five companies all equally,” Fine said.

The bill would affect municipalities, too. Under the letter of the bill, St. Petersburg would not be allowed to run advertisements from an official city Facebook page, Gruters said.

Earlier this year, Fine wrote a letter to Florida’s cabinet officials, urging them to divest the state of the technology companies. Fine, a consultant and former casino executive, is worth about $24.6 million, according to his most recent state financial disclosure. He had almost $48,000 invested with Apple as of June. He said Tuesday he has since sold his stock.

This is not the first time politicians have used the business portfolio and the state’s retirement system account, one of the largest investment funds in the nation, to make a political point.

In 2017, Gov. Rick Scott, who was then a candidate for U.S. Senate, said he wanted the state to sever ties with companies doing business with the regime of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. One of the largest companies affected was Goldman Sachs, which managed $478 million in Florida’s Long Duration Portfolio, plus $16 million in a distressed-debt portfolio. The Florida Retirement System also had about $218 million in Goldman stock and bonds.

After Goldman dispatched envoys to the state, Scott issued what critics complained was a watered-down proposal, which they said left wiggle room for Goldman to continue managing money for Florida. Democrats accused the Republican governor of backtracking, and then-state Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, a Miami Democrat, unveiled a bill to initiate disinvestment in the company. The measure did not pass.

In 1985, three state senators opposed to apartheid in South Africa asked the State Board of Administration to divest the then $3 billion stock portfolio of some of the firms that do business in South Africa. The board rejected the idea.

Times/Herald Tallahassee reporter Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this story.