Gov. DeSantis pushing to punish ‘Big Tech’ companies that ‘censor’ political speech (such as Trump speech)

An intruder holds a Trump flag inside the U.S. Capitol Building near the Senate Chamber on Jan. 6, 2021. The mob disrupted a joint session of Congress called to ratify President-elect Joe Biden's lectoral College win over President Donald Trump. Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Republican legislative leaders intend to pursue legislation to impose hefty fines and civil liability on “Big Tech” companies that “deplatform” political speech by candidates for office in Florida.

The move follows decisions by social media and other technology companies to withdraw services from President Trump after his conspiracy claims that Democrats had stolen the election from him, leading to a violent attack on Congress by his supporters on Jan. 6.

Trump was impeached Jan. 13 over inciting the riot and will be on trial starting next week in the U.S. Senate.

Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In a news conference in the Florida Capitol, DeSantis argued the companies had become too powerful, using algorithms and “content moderators” to silence political voices — particularly conservative ones — while coarsening society for profit.

“Big Tech has long since abdicated the protection of consumers for the pursuit of profit. We can’t allow Floridians’ privacy to be violated, their voices and even their livelihoods diminished, and even their elections interfered with,” DeSantis said.

The complaint was in line with other accusations of anti-conservative bias by the platforms that a recently released study by the Stern Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University denounced as “a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it.”

Nevertheless, legislation (SB 52) filed by Sen. Danny Burgess, a Republican representing parts of Hillsborough, Pasco, and Polk counties, would require platforms to provide written explanations to users whose feeds they have suspended or cancelled.

A House version (HB 33), filed by Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a Hernando County Republican, would create a private right to sue if a social media company “deletes or censors” a user’s political or religious speech.

Platforms would not be punished for blocking calls for immediate violent or criminal acts, obscenity or pornography, or material involving minors bullying minors or that comes from an inauthentic sources or involves impersonation.

“If a technology company deplatforms a candidate for elected office in Florida during an election, that company will incur a daily fine of $100,000 until the candidate’s access to the platform is restored,” the governor said. (Currently, the House language provides for damages of at least $75,000.)

“Further, if a technology company promotes a candidate for office against another, the value of that free promotion must be recorded as a political campaign contribution, enforced by the Florida Elections Commission,” he continued.

“And, lastly, if a technology company uses their content- and user-related algorithms to suppress or prioritize the access of any content related to a political candidate or cause on the ballot, that company will also face daily fines,” he said. (Again, that language is not yet in the House bill.)

“The message is loud and clear: When it comes to elections in Florida, Big Tech should stay out of it.”

Social media platforms including Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube blocked Trump’s accounts following the incident at the U.S. Capitol, when thousand of Trump supporters stormed the building while trying to block Congress from certifying Democrat Joe Biden’s Electoral College victory.

Elected officials, staff, and reporters hid behind locked doors as organized combatants searched for them and invaded the House and Senate chambers. Five people died, including a Capitol Police officer (and two more officers later died by suicide).

Later, Amazon informed the Parler social media site — which hosted extremists who threatened violence — that it could no longer use its web-hosting services, as BuzzFeed was first to report. So did Apple and Google.

Facebook has referred to an independent oversight board the matter of if and when Trump may return to its platform.

In the immediate aftermath of the Capitol attack, DeSantis — whose endorsement by Trump via a tweet propelled his candidacy in 2018 — argued the violence underscored his call for a crackdown on demonstrators, which he first announced following Black Lives Matter demonstrations during the summer.

Earlier this month, the governor announced that his top priority for the 2021 legislative session, which opens on March 2, was to attack what he considers censorship of conservatives by social media platforms.

DeSantis said his concerns extend to what he called the platforms’ enabling of an array of social ills, mentioning childhood bullying and the “coarsening of American discourse and culture.” They also violate users’ privacy to sell ads, he said.

The GOP leaders who joined DeSantis during the news conference — House Speaker Chris Sprowls, Senate President Wilton Simpson, Lt. Gov. Janet Nunez, and Burgess and Ingoglia — delivered a sweeping indictment against Big Tech.

Sprowls identified “the five families of darkness” — Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Google, and Apple.

“With our proposal, we are pushing the barriers to finally call out their convoluted and inconsistent standards for censoring, banning, and deplatforming. We’re saying no more to secret algorithms that provide no way for consumers to opt out,” Sprowls said.

“We won’t let them continue to pick winners and losers among established news outlets and qualified political candidates. They can’t keep frequently changing their terms of use without the consent of the user. Their antitrust ways of controlling the price and the marketplace for advertising on their platforms are coming to an end.”

The leaders also demanded transparency regarding how the tech giants use their algorithms and content moderators to control speech on their sites.

The move is “not about regulating businesses,” Ingoglia said. “It’s about protecting Floridians from monopolistic Big Tech behavior.”

“There’s not much we can do as a state,” Simpson conceded. “We need Congress to act on a nationwide basis to put this into place for our entire country.

Burgess argued that, under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, Congress granted immunity to the platforms for third-party speech. “As publishers of third-party content, they should not be allowed to discriminate based on content just because they don’t agree with your viewpoint,” he said.

Sites flag questionable content but sometimes for “arbitrary” reasons, DeSantis said. He cited a recent Facebook post on his Facebook feed discussing COVID vaccine dispersal that was flagged for “sensitive content.”

Leaders depend on these resources to communicate with the public, but “that stuff can be really truncated just on the whim of somebody who’s in Northern California, probably has some pretty different views than most Floridians do. That’s not a good situation,” the governor said.

He dismissed a reporter’s reminder that Trump was deplatformed because he incited a riot.

“Give me a break. They are not principled in this. They have so much garbage and filth on that platform all the time. They did not censor people when they were using those platforms for the rioting that occurred over the summer. Their excuse doesn’t hold water,” he said.

The Stern Center study dismissed such concerns.

“No trustworthy large-scale studies have determined that conservative content is being removed for ideological reasons or that searches are being manipulated to favor liberal interests,” it concludes.

“Even anecdotal evidence of supposed bias tends to crumble under close examination,” the document adds.

“Take Trump’s exclusion from Twitter and Facebook. These actions, while unprecedented, were reasonable responses to Trump’s repeated violation of platform rules against undermining election results and inciting violence. If anything, the platforms previously had given Trump a notably wide berth because of his position, seeking to appease him, despite his demagogic and routinely false claims.”

But DeSantis pointed to the decision by Facebook and Twitter to quash a New York Post story involving emails that reportedly contained dirt about Biden’s son, Hunter, citing their rules against misinformation. (See this AP report.)

Other publications were unable to verify the Post report and feared the information was the product of a hack or other skullduggery, although Hunter later acknowledged he was subject of a federal tax investigation, as CNN reported.

To DeSantis, it was an example of social media colluding with “corporate legacy media” to repress information damaging to the Democratic nominee.

“Are you kidding me? You’re trying to tell me if there was hacked information that could damage me, you guys wouldn’t print it? Give me a break. You can whizz on my leg but don’t tell me it’s raining.”

 

Note: This story has been updated with additional details from the news conference.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.