MIAMI — Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican who is positioning himself for re-election next year, signed legislation Monday that aims to crack down on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon out of concern that they are conspiring against conservatives and their free speech.
The legislation, which DeSantis touted as the first of its kind in the nation, would, among other things, make it illegal for large technology companies to remove candidates for office from their platforms in the run-up to an election. It would also make it easier for Florida’s attorney general and individuals to sue “Big Tech.”
“These platforms have become our public square,” DeSantis said at a lectern with a sign that read “STOP Big Tech Censorship,” noting that “Big Tech oligarchs” have censored debates about the pandemic and policies that officials put in place to contain the deadly virus, such as lockdowns.
“Silicon Valley is acting as a council of censors; they cancel people when mobs come after somebody. They will pull them down,” he said.
But the measure, which takes effect July 1, is likely to get challenged in court. Critics of the bill, such as Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg, say the legislation compels speech onto private companies, which would violate the companies’ First Amendment rights.
It’s also legally unclear the extent to which Florida can regulate the efforts of companies that operate across state lines.
Congress has been slow to impose rules for the internet, even as lawmakers in Washington ramp up hearings about the power of big technology companies, such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, the former governor of Florida, said in a statement that he “welcomes action on this at the state and federal level” and that he will continue to push for more accountability measures on “Big Tech” in the U.S. Senate.
DeSantis made the issue a top priority during this year’s annual legislative session.
Issue after Trump removed from social media
He began to put more of an emphasis on the issue in January, after several technology companies kicked President Donald Trump off their platforms for spreading election misinformation, actions that many view as leading to the Jan. 6 riots at the U.S. Capitol, in which five people died, including a Capitol Police officer.
In a speech in Texas in January, DeSantis called fighting conservative censorship online “probably the most important legislative issue that we’re going to have to get right this year and next year.”
When asked by reporters on Monday, if the measure was meant to help Trump, a Florida resident, DeSantis said the “bill is for everyday Floridians.
“But I do think that’s another issue that has been brought to bear: When you de-platform the president of the United States but you let Ayatollah Khameini talk about killing Jews, that is wrong.”
DeSantis kept the “Big Tech” issue in the news throughout the legislative session with multiple appearances on Fox News and official events. In April, after YouTube removed a DeSantis panel discussion with health experts for violating the company’s “COVID-19 medical misinformation” policies, DeSantis defiantly held another discussion with the same experts.
DeSantis has also embraced smaller technology companies that have been popular with conservatives. He’s posted videos on Rumble, a video platform that is an alternative to YouTube, and he criticized Amazon’s move to restrict Parler, which has become an alternative to Twitter for conservatives.
When the measure was debated by legislators, Brandes pointed out that Amazon removed Parler from its server after it violated its terms of service by allowing users to post comments promoting violence and conspiracies.
Social media posts calling for assassinations
Brandes asked the bill sponsor, Sen. Ray Rodrigues, R-Estero, why the state wanted to prevent platforms from taking content down that called for the assassination of “liberal leaders, their activists … and members of the NBA, NFL, MLB, anchors and correspondents.”
Rodrigues said that under the bill, users that post that type of content would have 30 days to continue using the platform before getting kicked off.
That’s because the bill says any user who has been de-platformed would be allowed access to retrieve all of their information and content.
Any platform that removes a candidate without giving them 30 days warning may be fined up to $250,000 per day if those individuals are running for a statewide office and up to $25,000 per day if they are running for any other office. DeSantis said courts may award up to $100,000 in damages for each proven claim.
“We are protecting Floridians’ ability to speak and express their opinions,” DeSantis said Monday. “This will lead to more speech, not less speech because speech that’s inconvenient to the narrative will be protected.”
Democrats, however, have said the bill was more about national party politics than principle. Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat, suggested the bill would be helpful to DeSantis if he ends up running for the Republican nominee for president in 2024 if he gets reelected governor in Florida in 2022.
“I’m just writing notes down for a speech that’s going to be given in Iowa in a couple of years, not in your district,” Pizzo said last month. “This is not for your constituents.”
A Disney carve-out
During the news conference Monday at Florida International University in Miami, DeSantis did not mention that mobile platforms operated by companies that own theme parks or a large entertainment complex, such as Disney, will not be subject to the new law.
Companies like Disney, a big contributor in Florida politics, were carved out of the measure just before the Legislature approved the bill and sent it to the governor.
“There were concerns about things that I didn’t quite think that bill was going to impact,” DeSantis said on May 7 when asked by reporters. “At the end of the day, that’s just how this process works sometimes.”
DeSantis added at the time that the bill is designed for those who are “offending right now” and to “give people the ability to defend their rights if they get censored.”
While DeSantis makes protecting users’ speech on social media a top priority, the governor and legislators have not imposed new rules on companies that collect information from people who download an app or use a website.
Legislators spent much of the regular session on a proposal that would have imposed new disclosure requirements on companies that collect consumers’ data, but the measure died.
And a gaming compact negotiated by DeSantis and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and ratified by the Legislature last week, also did not contemplate data harvesting in relation to the deal’s mobile sports betting component.
The governor invited several lawmakers to the bill-signing ceremony Monday. Those guests included James O’Keefe, whose organization, Project Veritas, has tried to undermine the credibility of mainstream news outlets by exposing what it says is their bias. In 2017, O’Keefe’s group reportedly sent an operative to the Washington Post under false pretenses in an attempt to intentionally plant a false story about Alabama U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore. The Post figured out the apparent ruse, and reported on Project Veritas’ efforts.
DeSantis let a few guest speakers have their turn at the lectern, including Dariel Fernandez, a Cuban-American who was elected as a Republican County Executive Committee district committeeman; Alberto Perosch, a Venezuelan-American with VARA — Venezuelan American Republican Alliance, cheered on by supporters wearing red; and Félix Rodríguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran who had a career in the CIA.
The governor’s office reached out to the new Adam Smith Center for Economic Freedom, at FIU’s Management and Advanced Research Center, to host the bill-signing event, said the center’s new director, Carlos Diaz-Rosillo.
Diaz-Rosillo also spoke at the event in favor of the new law while billing the center as a “nonpartisan think tank” and a “neutral place.”
Colleen Wright reported from Florida International University; Ana Ceballos and Kirby Wilson reported from Tallahassee.
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