Florida, in a First, Will Fine Social Media Companies That Bar Candidates

WASHINGTON – Florida became the first state on Monday to regulate how companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter moderate online language by fining social media companies that permanently ban political candidates for state office.

The bill, signed by Governor Ron DeSantis, is a direct response to former President Donald J. Trump’s bans on Facebook and Twitter in January. In addition to fines for banning candidates, it is illegal to prevent some news outlets from posting on their platforms in response to the content of their stories.

Mr DeSantis said signing the bill meant Floridians would offer “guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites”.

“When big tech censors inconsistently enforce rules to discriminate in favor of the prevailing Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable,” he said in a statement.

The bill is part of a broader effort by conservative lawmakers to disrupt tech companies’ ability to manage posts on their platforms. Political efforts increased after Mr Trump was locked down after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Lawmakers across the country have reiterated Mr Trump’s allegations that companies are biased against conservative personalities and publications, even though these accounts often thrive online.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than a hundred bills were tabled across the country this year targeting corporate moderation practices. Many of the bills have died, but one proposal is still being debated in Texas.

Twitter declined to comment. Google and Facebook didn’t immediately comment on the signing of the bill.

Florida law makes it illegal to suspend a candidate for state office for more than 14 days, which appears to outlaw the kind of permanent ban on the social media platforms applied to Mr. Trump’s accounts. Companies would be fined $ 250,000 per day for banning a candidate for nationwide office. The fine is lower for candidates seeking other positions.

The law states that the platforms cannot remove or otherwise prioritize content from a “journalistic company” that reaches a certain size. Conservatives were outraged last year when Facebook and Twitter narrowed the reach of an article in the New York Post about the contents of a laptop that was claimed to belong to Hunter Biden, President Biden’s younger son.

The law also requires platforms to be clear about how to remove or leave content. Users could sue the platform if they believe these terms are not applied consistently.

A late amendment to the bill exempts companies from the law if they own a theme park or entertainment venue that is larger than 25 acres. That means the law likely doesn’t apply to sites owned by Disney, which operates Walt Disney World Resort, and Comcast, which owns Universal Studios Florida.

In Florida, as in dozens of other states, the drive by Republican lawmakers to punish social media companies follows the party’s other efforts to satisfy the demands of a conservative grassroots loyal to Mr Trump.

Florida in the past few weeks, along with Republican-led legislatures in Oklahoma and Iowa, has passed laws restricting the right to protest and providing immunity to drivers who hit protesters on public roads.

And the Republican urge to make the vote harder continues unabated after Mr Trump lied relentlessly about the results of the 2020 election. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp signed new voting restrictions, as did Mr DeSantis in Florida, and the Texas Republicans are poised to pass the country’s biggest voting slump soon.

The party-wide, nationwide push comes from Mr. Trump’s repeated complaints. During his failed re-election campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly urged the repeal of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides certain technology companies immunity from liability for user-generated content, even if he used their platforms to disseminate misinformation. Twitter and Facebook finally banned Mr. Trump after inspiring his supporters through their platforms to attack the Capitol on January 6th.

Republican lawmakers in Florida have repeated what Mr. Trump said.

“I have had numerous voters come to me saying they have been banned or taken off the platform on social media sites,” said representative Blaise Ingoglia during the debate on the bill.

However, Democrats, libertarian groups and tech companies say the law violates the First Amendment rights of tech companies to decide how to handle content on their own platforms. It can also prove impossible to file complaints under the law as Section 230 provides the legal protection for web platforms that Mr. Trump attacked.

“It’s the government that tells private companies how to speak,” said Carl Szabo, vice president of NetChoice, a trade association that includes Facebook, Google and Twitter. “In general, it is a gross misinterpretation of the First Amendment.” He said the first change was meant to protect sites like Reddit from government interference, not “politicians before Reddit”.

The Florida measure is likely to be challenged in court, said Jeff Kosseff, professor of cybersecurity law at the Naval Academy.

“I think this is the start of testing the judges’ boundaries for these types of social media restrictions,” he said.

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