On Monday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis took a swipe at Big Tech when he signed a content-moderation bill aimed at digital platforms.
The bill is one of the most significant steps taken by a Republican governor to address allegations of online censorship by companies like Facebook (FB), Google, and Twitter (TWTR).
However, critics in the tech industry claim that the legislation is unconstitutional, setting the stage for a legal battle.
DeSantis blamed a “council of censors” in Silicon Valley for shutting down debate over Covid-19 lockdowns and the origins of the coronavirus in public remarks on Monday.
“I would say those lockdowns have ruined millions of people’s lives all around this country,” DeSantis said. “Wouldn’t it have been good to have a full debate on that in our public square? But that was not what Silicon Valley wanted to do.”
The bill signed by DeSantis prohibits tech companies from suspending or banning political candidates in the state, with fines of up to $250,000 per day if the candidate is running for statewide office and $25,000 per day if the candidate is running for a non-statewide office.
Residents of Florida will be able to sue tech companies for deplatforming under the new law. States like Arkansas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Utah have also considered similar legislation.
Florida’s bill comes as US lawmakers consider major changes to a federal law that allows tech platforms to curate their platforms without fear of being sued. Democrats argue that platforms benefit from the law’s immunity protections without doing enough to rein in offensive content, while Republicans argue that the platforms restrict too much content.
Officials from the tech industry have denied blocking or removing content based on political ideology on numerous occasions. Many tech platforms have policies prohibiting the spread of coronavirus misinformation or falsehoods about the 2020 election, and some prominent Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have run afoul of those policies, leading to their suspension from major online platforms.
According to the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a tech trade group, Florida’s legislation will force tech platforms to take a step back from moderating their sites due to the threat of litigation from “any internet user, from foreign extremists to disgruntled internet trolls.”
“Florida taxpayers will also end up paying their share in the cost of enforcing new regulations, as well as the inevitable legal challenges that will come along with the legislature’s effort to adopt a law with glaring constitutional challenges,” CCIA president Matt Schruers wrote in an op-ed for the Orlando Sentinel.
The CCIA was also concerned about a highly contentious provision in the bill that exempts theme park operators’ websites, which some critics have interpreted as a special exemption for Disney. (The exemption may appear to cover Comcast, which owns NBCUniversal and operates the Universal Orlando theme park.)
The bill’s constitutionality is being questioned because of First Amendment cases prohibiting the government from compel private entities to speak.
“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution — backstopped by Section 230 — makes it abundantly clear that states have no power to compel private companies to host speech, especially from politicians,” said Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, a co-author of Section 230, in a statement regarding the signing on the Florida bill.