TALLAHASSEE — On the same day former President Donald Trump’s lawyers argued that his words to the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol were protected by his First Amendment right to free speech, Gov. Ron DeSantis held a hastily-called news conference to announce a proposal to penalize social media companies for blocking politicians, even if they incite violence.
“We’ve seen the power of their censorship over individuals and organizations, including what I believe is clear viewpoint discrimination,’' said DeSantis as Florida’s Senate president and House speaker stood at his side. “Under our proposal, if a technology company de-platforms a candidate for elected office in Florida during the election, a company will face a daily fine of $100,000 until the candidate’s access to the platform is restored again.”
The proposed bill, which is still being drafted, asks the Florida Legislature to impose penalties for social media companies whose algorithms are perceived to favor one candidate over another. It builds on SB 520, filed by state Sen. Danny Burgess, that would require the platforms to give a 30-day notice to a user whose account has been disabled or suspended and explain why the user was punished.
Although the governor never mentioned the former president, who was banned by Facebook and Twitter after they said he used his accounts to incite violence and disseminate conspiracy theories about the election, the timing of the announcement coincided with the filing by Trump’s lawyers in the pending impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate.
In a 14-page brief, lawyers David Schoen and Bruce Castor wrote that when Trump told his supporters “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore” it was not meant as a reference to violent action but was intended to be “about the need to fight for election security in general.”
They also denied that Trump had incited the riot by disputing the election results or by exhorting his followers to action. By contrast, the U.S. House accuses Trump of “high crimes and misdemeanors” for inciting the violent insurrection.
“The actions by the House make clear that in their opinion the 45th president does not enjoy the protections of liberty upon which this great nation was founded, where free speech, and indeed, free political speech form the backbone of all American liberties,” the defense lawyers wrote.
DeSantis, whose allegiance to Trump began when the former president used his Twitter account to endorse DeSantis over his Republican primary rivals in the 2018 Florida election for governor, blasted “the big tech oligarchy” for being “more of a clear and present danger to the rights of free speech, than the government itself.”
He accused the social media companies of having a bias against conservatives because they didn’t ban from their accounts the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement and Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both of whom DeSantis said used their accounts to incite violence.
“They have so much garbage and filth on that platform, all the time,’' he said. “They did not censor people when they were using those platforms for the rioting that occurred over the summer, so their excuse doesn’t hold water.”
Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, who chairs the Florida House Commerce Committee that will draft the legislation, said the announcement was not related to the president’s First Amendment defense, but the bill has been something House Republicans have been considering for months as social media giants started to become more aggressive with issuing warnings and removing people for content that violated their policies..
“What we’re looking at is consistency and transparency,’' he said. “If you are going to de-platform somebody for inciteful speech or hate speech, then you need to de-platform all of it. What we’re seeing is arbitrary decisions that are being made.”
A committee bill
The proposal, which will be released as a committee bill by the House Commerce Committee, would require a technology company that promotes a candidate for office against another to have the value of that promotion be recorded as a political contribution and subject to regulation by the Florida Elections Commission. It also imposes daily fines on a technology company that uses its content and user-related algorithms “to suppress or prioritize the content related to political candidates.”
The proposal would also require companies to allow users to opt out of algorithms that tailor the content they see in their feeds, and the legislation would also allow Floridians and the state’s attorney general to sue the companies for violating these provisions.
DeSantis argued that the proof of the social media companies’ bias is the fact that the discredited New York Post story on Hunter Biden, which DeSantis says “was true,” was not amplified.
He said he has had threats against him on social media. “It only gets taken down if law enforcement tells them to do it,’' he said. “They’re not moderating any of that. Their thumb’s on the scale.”
For more than five years, Trump had the ability to catch the world’s attention with the push of a button. But after Twitter and Facebook banned him from the accounts, he lost access to 88 million Twitter followers, 35 million Facebook followers and the ability to use those platforms to elevate his supporters like DeSantis.
Florida’s governor has not disavowed statements about Trump’s discredited claims about the election and has not commented on Trump’s post-election efforts to get Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and former Attorney General William Barr to intervene in the election results.
On Tuesday, DeSantis was asked if he agreed “with the president that the election was stolen from him and that there was widespread fraud.” He didn’t answer, and instead compared it to Democrats blaming Russia for interfering with the election.
“So here’s what I would say,’' DeSantis said. “How many people tweeted in 2016, ’17, ’18, ’19 and ’20 that Russia stole an election?...Did any of those people get de-platformed?”
DeSantis called allegations of Russian collusion with Trump “a conspiracy theory not based on fact” that was “amplified by social media for years.” He did not mention that the FBI has charged, and a federal grand jury has indicted, 12 Russian military intelligence officers with computer hacking, stealing documents, and staging releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Big Tech’s monopolies
The nation’s social media giants have no major rivals, and the governor and legislative leaders made no mention of proposals to end the virtual monopoly status of Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter.
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a Democrat, said Tuesday that the governor’s attention should be focused on getting congressional action to reduce the monopoly power of Big Tech, not on attempting to use Florida law to regulate private companies that have a right to write their own rules.
“We’ve got to go back to the basics of: Did the big tech companies become too big? And that’s a conversation that needs to be happening on the federal level,” she said. “It’s a disingenuous argument today from the governor and from Republican leadership that are taking this stance. If you want to go after the tech companies, because you feel it’s un-American, because it doesn’t allow for smaller businesses to get involved, that capitalism is stifled, then that’s a conversation that we need to be having.”
Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, acknowledged that “there’s not much we can do as a state” to intercede in the power of the technology giants. “But we need Congress to act on a nationwide basis,’' he said.
One issue the governor appeared reluctant to support is a call by Republican Rep. Randy Fine and Sen. Joe Gruters to have the governor and Cabinet divest the $8 billion the state has invested in Twitter, Apple, Facebook and Google through the Florida Retirement System, which pays retirees with proceeds from the investments.
The returns on Big Tech investments have been enormous, in the last year exceeding 30 percent, according to the State Board of Administration. The legislation proposes forcing the state to sell those stocks, pay thousands in administrative fees, and lose millions in lost investments. DeSantis said if Florida divested those stocks, “it really doesn’t protect Floridians” and may not affect the companies.
Ingoglia said he opposes the idea.
“The very people that it hurts are the people investing in our pension funds,’' he said.