Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday signed a measure to limit social media’s control over what appears on their platforms, setting up another possible court battle for the state.
DeSantis named the bill (SB 7072) a priority ahead of the 2021 Legislative Session after Twitter and other prominent social media companies banished then-President Donald Trump and other conservatives from their platforms following the U.S. Capitol riot.
The law will require social media companies to post their terms of service with standards for handling issues like censoring, deplatforming and blocking users, and apply the standards consistently.
DeSantis unveiled the proposal days after Trump left office and moved to Florida full-time. While the connection to the former President is clear, the Governor called it a bill for everyday Floridians.
That didn’t stop him from elaborating on that connection when pressed by a reporter after signing the bill at Florida International University.
“When you deplatform the President of the United States, but you let Ayatollah (Ali) Khamenei talk about killing Jews, that is wrong,” DeSantis said.
In the past, platforms have removed users without informing them what community standards they may have violated. Conservatives also argue they have been disproportionately targeted with bans, censoring, shadow bans and other restrictions.
Further, the bill would limit social media companies to banning candidates for no more than 14 days, and violations would draw $250,000 fines for statewide candidates or $25,000 for local candidates.
Spring Hill Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the House bill sponsor, called the legislation a consumer protection measure.
“(We) do not think that a handful of kids behind some desks in Silicon Valley get to be the arbiter of what free speech is,” he said.
Some lawmakers, mostly Democrats, have questioned whether the measure is constitutional because it would compel companies to host speech. And lawsuits are expected to follow the signing.
In a statement, Jacksonville Democratic Sen. Audrey Gibson said tech companies take responsibility for what they host and have a right to do so.
“Our young people are watching, people around this country are watching and Florida is getting a black eye yet again for the anti-people bills of this past Session,” she said.
Social media platforms have become monopolies stronger than those of the earlier 20th century, DeSantis said, and are now a part of the public square. Moreover, he argued the Founding Fathers couldn’t have foreseen the need to protect speech from private companies.
Immediately after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, tech companies rallied against a rightwing Twitter alternative, Parler, pulled it from app stores and restricted the companies’ business operations. The Governor likened Parler, which has more than 20 million total users, to someone running a small business.
“If someone in Silicon Valley doesn’t like you, then they can work together and just wipe you off?” DeSantis continued. “That’s people’s livelihoods that are at stake. Those are people’s businesses and ultimately people’s jobs that are at stake.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has also heightened tensions on social media as companies attempt to shut down content that runs contrary to what mainstream scientists say about the virus. With Dr. Anthony Fauci now saying he is not convinced the virus was created naturally, the Governor noted that social media platforms had initially considered the Wuhan lab leak theory a conspiracy theory.
“Even Fauci admits that this may be something that very well is the case,” DeSantis said. “Are they going to now censor Fauci and pull him down off social media?”
The new law, which takes effect in July, makes Florida a “trailblazer,” according to the Governor. Other states are already following suit.
“It starts in Florida, but it’s not going to end in Florida, and I think we’re gonna have a huge movement behind us,” DeSantis said.
Sen. Ray Rodrigues, the Estero Republican who carried the bill, said lobbyists have killed similar bills in other states.
“When it comes to freedom of speech, in this state, we will defend freedom of speech against digital book burners, regardless of how big they are or how powerful they are, because speech is fundamental to our freedom,” he said.
A late addition to the bill clarifies that social media platforms don’t include a company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex. The theme park language targets Disney’s Disney Plus, which Rodrigues said inadvertently got tied up in language saying the bill applied to platforms with 100 million users. Last month, the Governor told reporters that provision wasn’t his “baby.”
“I think there were concerns about things that I didn’t quite think that bill was even going to impact,” DeSantis said. “I don’t know why it came to that, but at the end of the day, that’s just how this process works sometimes.”
The Senate Democratic Caucus released its own statement calling the bill a reaction to Trump’s ban from Facebook and Twitter and an overreach of government.
“If Republicans really cared about protecting our First Amendment rights, they would never have allowed dangerous and anti-American HB 1 to pass through the Florida Legislature and be signed into law,” the caucus said. “Instead, they’re talking out of both sides of their mouths — muzzling protesters’ freedom of speech and right to peacefully assemble while also stripping private businesses from determining what is and is not acceptable on their own platforms.”
Earlier Monday, the Department of Economic Opportunity announced it would stop providing additional unemployment aid to jobless Floridians late next month, a moved DeSantis backed. Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny A. Díaz criticized the Governor for hurting both business and struggling Floridians.
“He is focused on political games that will score him national points even if they are unconstitutional, all while he is ignoring or even actively hurting struggling Floridians,” Díaz said. “It is clear that the only person Ron DeSantis cares about is himself.”