GOP lawmakers are pushing to punish social media sites for kicking off conservatives with political views

The Florida Capitol on Jan. 20, 2021. Credit: Michael Moline/Florida Phoenix

Conservatives who believe they’ve been unjustly kicked off social media platforms over their political views could sue for major financial damages under legislation that appears close to becoming law in Tallahassee.

The Act Relating to Social Media Platforms targets social media companies that “deplatformed” — or denied services — to former President Trump and his followers for spreading dangerous misinformation about COVID-19 and the presidential election’s fairness contrary to their terms of service.

Conservatives quickly claimed the social media companies were censoring their views.

The Florida Senate approved the bill on a 22-17 vote along party lines, although Republican Jeff Brandes of Pinellas County voted no. The bill next goes to the Florida House, where similar legislation (HB 7017) is pending.

The measure is a priority for Gov. Ron DeSantis, ranking among a number of bills the governor is pushing this year that advance culture-war issues, including HB 1, his crack-down on protesters, which he has signed into law. Critics argue the social media legislation is designed to boost the governor’s presumed presidential ambitions.

The bill (SB 7072) would allow users who feel they’ve been censored for their political writing to file lawsuits over violations and receive as much as $100,000 in civil damages per violation, plus actual damages to their businesses and punitive damages. Additionally, the attorney general could take platforms to court.

Social media sites couldn’t kick political candidates off their platforms on pain of fines of $100,000 per day for statewide candidates and $10,000 per day for other candidates. Those that provide free advertising for a candidate would have to report it as a campaign contribution.

Sen. Brandes argued the bill is unconstitutional and runs counter to what are supposed to be his party’s values.

“This is a big government bill. This is a bill you would see in countries we don’t want to talk about — some that are 90 miles south of here, some that are little farther south.”

Republicans argued the tech giants have gained too much market power and are abusing it in violation of antitrust laws. Florida is among the states now pursuing litigation against Facebook and Google for alleged antitrust violations.

“These social media platforms have become a system of our free press nowadays, and they were able to take a whole segment of free press away and say, “We don’t want to hear those words, we don’t want to hear that speech, and we’re going to deplatform you,’” said Sen. Kelli Stargel of Lake and Polk counties.

“In 200 years of history in this country, when the battle has been between a monopoly on one side and hard-working Americans on the other, the right side of history has always been on the side of the people and it has never been on the side of monopolies,” bill sponsor Ray Rodrigues of Lee County said.

The bill doesn’t explicitly ban platforms from censoring content, but says they must explain the rules and apply in a “consistent manner among its users”; notify users of any rule changes, which are only allowed once every 30 days; and must notify users of specific acts of censorship of their posts.

Users would gain the right to opt out of any algorithms or other processes of giving priorities to categories of posts.

Deplatformed users would have the right to recover any material they’ve posted on the platforms. “Journalistic enterprises” could not be deplatformed. Users would have the right to a written explanation of why they’ve been deplatformed.

Significantly, the measure would block companies and their individual officers and mangers from doing business with the state if they have been convicted of antitrust violations. Even if they are only accused, they can be blocked if the state attorney general finds probable cause of a violation.