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Florida governor signs bill barring social media companies from blocking political candidates

Tech trade groups say law is unconstitutional, conflicts with federal law

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after he signed legislation seeking to punish social media platforms. (Carl Juste/Miami Herald via AP)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill Monday that aims to punish social media companies for their moderation decisions, a move that Silicon Valley immediately criticized and likely sets the stage for potential legal challenges.

The legislation would bar Internet companies from suspending political candidates in the run-up to elections. 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.

Legal experts and tech industry trade groups immediately raised concerns about the constitutionality of the law and warned that it gives the government too much power over online speech.

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DeSantis, a potential 2024 Republican presidential contender, pushed for the legislation’s passage amid conservatives’ complaints that tech companies censor them — charges that the companies vehemently deny. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube’s decisions to suspend former president Donald Trump’s account in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot have only heightened the stakes.

“Today, Floridians are being guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab on speech, thought, and content,” DeSantis said in a tweet. “We the people are standing up to tech totalitarianism with the signing of Florida’s Big Tech Bill.”

DeSantis first announced his support for the bill shortly after the tech companies’ suspended Trump, but the legislation, had it been effect, would not have affected the tech companies since Trump at the time was not an active candidate for office. The law creates fines of $250,000 per day for banning candidates for statewide office, and $25,000 for candidates for local office.

The law also includes provisions to protect people who aren’t running for office, allowing them to bring lawsuits against the companies if they think they’re being inconsistent about content decisions.

DeSantis signed the bill at an event at Florida International University in Miami, where he spoke from a lectern with the sign that said “Stop Big Tech Censorship.” DeSantis was flanked by other Florida Republicans, as well as James O’Keefe, the founder of Project Veritas, a non-profit organization known for using undercover tactics to expose what it says is liberal bias in the mainstream news media. Twitter earlier this year banned O’Keefe’s account, and he has sued the company for defamation.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School in California, described the bill as bad policy and warned that some of its provisions are “obviously unconstitutional” because they restrict the editorial discretion of online publishers. He said some aspects of the law also would be preempted by a federal Internet law known as Section 230 that shields Internet companies from lawsuits over posts, photos and other content shared on their services.

“I see this bill as purely performative, it was never designed to be law but simply to send a message to voters,” Goldman said in an interview.

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The Florida legislation, which takes effect July 1, underscores how Republicans are increasingly targeting tech giants in state legislatures, while their ability to take action at the federal level is limited as Democrats control Washington. The Biden administration recently revoked a Trump era executive order that called on the Federal Communications Commission to rethink the scope of Section 230 and when its liability protections apply.

The Texas Senate has 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. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott (R-Texas) has expressed support for that bill. North Carolina and Louisiana state lawmakers have introduced similar bills.

“It’s open season on the Internet at the state level,” Goldman said.

Washington lawmakers are also debating the future of social media legislation. Members of Congress from both parties have introduced bills taking aim at Section 230, but there’s been very little bipartisan agreement about how the law should be changed. Democrats largely think the tech companies aren’t doing enough to police the spread of viral falsehoods, hate speech and content inciting violence, while Republicans argue the companies have gone too far.

Kurt Opsahl, the deputy executive director and general counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said the debate over the control of the Internet is critical. But the Florida law fails to address the key problems.

“There’s a lot to be done with providing more information and transparency,” he said in an interview. “It doesn’t end up being very helpful to pass an unconstitutional bill that is going to be challenged immediately and likely to never go into effect.”

Trade groups representing the tech industry argued that the Florida law could make it harder for tech companies to take down potentially harmful speech from their services.

“If this law could somehow be enforced, it would allow lawful but awful user posts including pornography, violence and hate speech that will make it harder for families to safely navigate online,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice, a trade association whose members include Facebook, Google and Twitter.

Tech trade groups also took issue with an exemption Florida lawmakers created for companies that own theme parks, which could apply to websites operated by Disney, whose Disney World is a major Florida tourist attraction, or Comcast, which owns Universal Studios Florida.

“If the Florida legislature actually believed that efforts to protect Internet users from harmful content threatened free expression, it wouldn’t be excluding digital services that own local theme parks,” Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, said in a statement.

State legislatures across the country are increasingly passing legislation to regulate tech giants in the absence of action from Washington. Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D) signed data privacy legislation into law, and Maryland enacted a first-in-the-nation tax on online advertising.