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The Technology 202: Tech companies win key victory in Florida social media law battles

with Aaron Schaffer

A federal judge has blocked a Florida law that would penalize social media companies for blocking a politician’s posts, just hours before the law was set to take effect. 

The law was due to go into effect today, but in issuing a preliminary injunction last night, U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle of the Northern District of Florida suggested that the law would be found unconstitutional, as I reported.  That's a key victory for tech companies, after trade groups Netchoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association brought a lawsuit challenging the legislation in May. 

“The plaintiffs are likely to prevail on the merits of their claim that these statutes violate the First Amendment,” Hinkle wrote. “There is nothing that could be severed and survive.”

The decision is a blow to conservatives’ efforts to crackdown on social media companies.

Florida legislators approved the law after Facebook, Twitter and YouTube suspended Trump’s accounts for violating their policies following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate and key Trump ally, touted the law as a stand against alleged censorship of conservatives when he signed it in May. (Tech companies have denied that they make content decisions based on political viewpoints). 

The law laid out fines for tech companies that suspended political candidates in the run-up to an election. It also would also make it easier for the Florida state attorney general and individuals to bring lawsuits when they think the tech companies have acted unfairly. But legal experts and tech experts immediately questioned the law's constitutionality. 

DeSantis plans to appeal the court's decision. 

DeSantis plans to immediately appeal Hinkle’s decision in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

“We are disappointed by Judge Hinkle’s ruling and disagree with his determination that the U.S. Constitution protects Big Tech’s censorship of certain individuals and content over others,” his office said in a statement.

Yet that could be an uphill battle. 

The Florida judge wrote a blistering criticism of the Florida law,. Hinkle said that it “compels providers to host speech that violates their standards.”

“Like prior First Amendment restrictions, this is an instance of burning the house to roast a pig,” he wrote.

He also said that remarks from the governor and other lawmakers made clear that the law was “viewpoint-based,” and said that there was “substantial factual support” showing the law was motivated by hostility directed at perceived liberal bias of large tech firms.

Hinkle also referred to the law as “riddled with imprecision and ambiguity,” and said it “does not survive strict scrutiny.”

The decision on the Florida law comes as states across the country have been considering their own similar bills.

The Texas Senate approved legislation similar to Florida’s that would prevent large tech companies from blocking or discriminating against a user based on their viewpoint or their location within Texas, but the Texas House did not pass the bill during the recent legislative session. North Carolina and Louisiana state lawmakers have introduced similar bills.

Tech industry groups celebrated the ruling. 

“This decision upholding the Constitution and federal law is encouraging, and reaffirms what we have been saying: Florida’s statute is an extraordinary overreach, designed to penalize private businesses for their perceived lack of deference to the Government’s political ideology,” CCIA President Matt Schruers said in a statement. “The court’s ruling is a win for Internet users and the First Amendment.”

Netchoice said the decision would allow tech companies to continue to remove objectionable content. “America’s judiciary system is designed to protect our constitutional rights, and today’s ruling is no different, ensuring that Florida’s politically motivated law does not force Floridians to endure racial epithets, aggressive homophobia, pornographic material, beheadings, or other gruesome content just to use the Internet,” Carl Szabo, the group’s vice president and general counsel, said in a statement.

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Robinhood agreed to pay $70 million to settle allegations including that they misled customers.

It’s the largest-ever financial penalty ordered by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which oversees financial brokerages, the Associated Press’s Stan Choe reports. The company neither admitted nor denied the allegations in the settlement. It has improved its customer support services, the company said in a blog post.

“We are glad to put this matter behind us and look forward to continuing to focus on our customers and democratizing finance for all,” said Jacqueline Ortiz Ramsay, the company’s head of public policy communications.

The settlement cites a customer suicide, service outages and “approval bots” that decide whether customers should be allowed to trade options with little oversight.

A Microsoft executive said government requests for customer data are shockingly routine.

Federal law enforcement agencies secretly seek the tech giant's customer data thousands of times every year, Tom Burt, Microsoft's corporate vice president for customer security and trust, told the House Judiciary Committee. The hearing came just weeks after revelations emerged that the Trump administration sought records of journalists and members of Congress.

Legislative changes are needed to protect against future requests by the Justice Department, lawmakers said. “We cannot trust the department to police itself,” committee chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.

Attorney General Merrick Garland has said the department will not seek records on journalists. He said he plans to issue a directive and regulations on the matter.

Amazon called for FTC Chair Lina Khan to be recused from antitrust matters involving the company.

The e-commerce giant said in a filing to the commission that Khan, a longtime critic of the company, is unable to oversee matters involving the company with “an open mind,” Jay Greene and Rachel Lerman report. Amazon’s motion comes as the FTC considers the company’s proposed acquisition of MGM Holdings, which owns the MGM movie studio. The regulator also is looking into possible antitrust behavior by tech companies such as Amazon.

“Chair Khan’s body of work and public statements demonstrate that she has prejudged the outcome of matters the FTC may examine during her term and, under established law, preclude her from participating in such matters,” Amazon spokesman Jack Evans said. The FTC declined to comment.

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Rant and rave

Many people discussed Amazon's petition for Khan to recuse herself in the context of expertise and the FTC. Creative Good founder Mark Hurst:

Our colleague, Will Oremus:

The Daily Beast's Kelly Weill:

Inside the industry

German official calls for government bodies to close Facebook pages (The Financial Times)

Privacy monitor

Amazon is about to share your Internet connection with neighbors. Here’s how to turn it off. (Geoffrey A. Fowler)

Trending

An NFT of the World Wide Web sells for $5.4 million. (The New York Times)

Juror Googled ICE officer’s mysterious uniform patch. The result? $11k for contempt (Reuters)

Mentions

Daybook

  • The NetGain Partnership hosts an event on policy solutions to online misinformation and disinformation today at 11 a.m. 
  • The Federal Trade Commission holds an open meeting today at noon.

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