Internet companies oppose Florida proposals to regulate web


Some Florida lawmakers want to impose state-level regulations on the free-wheeling online world, and are drawing opposition from some of the nation’s biggest Internet companies including Google, Yahoo, Facebook and eBay.

The conflict is over two proposed laws. One would affect who controls a person’s email and social media accounts and the secrets they may contain when the owner dies or becomes incapacitated. The other would make the state a combatant against Internet piracy of music and movies.

The bills’ proponents say they simply extend current laws to cover new kinds of information and assets that didn’t exist when those laws were written.

The laws would be enforced by individuals’ court actions.

The “True Origin of Digital Goods Act,” SB 604, would require operators of websites that distribute commercial recordings or videos to include their names, addresses and contact information.

Its purpose, sponsor Republican Sen. Anitere Flores of Miami told the Senate Judiciary Committee, is “to protect consumers against websites engaged in illegal distribution of music and movies,” because illegal downloads often contain viruses.

Mitch Glazier of the Recording Industry Association of America said it simply updates current law that covers physical products such as discs and makes it include online products. In the committee, Carlos Linares of the RIAA said it will also “give state authorities an opportunity to weigh in on the piracy issue.”

The Walt Disney Co., a powerful political force in Florida and major video producer, also backs the bill.

First Amendment supporters say the bill could infringe on the constitutional right to anonymous free speech, even though it’s aimed at commercial activity.

“Commercial does not always mean nonpolitical,” said Wesley Chapel intellectual property lawyer Dineen Wasylik, an Internet civil liberties advocate.

Big Internet companies including Google and Internet service providers oppose the bill, fearing courts would order them to help enforce the law by taking down or delisting noncompliant sites.

“We don’t want to be deputized to police the Internet,” Google lobbyist Justin Sayfie told the committee.

Glazier denied the law would do that, but opposition is spreading through tech-oriented websites and blogs.

Those blogs say music and video producers are trying to get states to pass laws similar to federal proposals, including the Stop Online Piracy Act, that failed in 2012 after an Internet industry outcry.

“Florida legislators are considering proposals that could undermine core principles that have helped keep the Internet open and free,” said a posting by the Computer & Communications Industry Association, which includes Facebook, eBay, Amazon and other major companies.

California and Tennessee already have passed such laws.

Senate Bill 102 on digital assets would give a “fiduciary,” such as a guardian or estate executor, the right to control online accounts of someone who has died or become incapacitated.

Ranging from bank statements to Facebook accounts, “Some of these have actual monetary value and some have incredible sentimental value,” sponsor Port Orange Republican Sen. Dorothy Hukill  told the Senate Fiscal Policy Committee.

Travis Hayes, a Naples estate planning lawyer, said the bill “just extends the law to cover a new class of property and treat it the same as real estate or other assets,” and would help an estate lawyer locate financial assets and preserve digital heirlooms while saving legal fees.

Proponents cite the case of a Marine killed in Iraq in 2004, Justin Ellsworth, whose Michigan family had to go to court to retrieve his Yahoo email account, which he had told them contained valuable pictures and messages.

But Carl Szabo of NetChoice, a digital commerce trade group, said it’s not just a property issue — “We make privacy promises to our users and this bill would force us to breach them.”

Federal law, he said, enforces those promises, and the bill could conflict with those laws.

That means personal consent from the account holder is required to open an account to someone else, Internet industry spokesmen argue.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press. 

William March


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