Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation on Monday penalizing “Big Tech” for alleged censorship of conservatives in a ceremony featuring many of the hallmarks of a political campaign appearance, including frequent outbursts of applause by an enthusiastic audience.
He did so while flanked by a crowd of state legislators plus exiles from Cuba and Venezuela — who compared what they perceive as the social-media threat to oppression in their home countries.
“Maybe this isn’t as much the bearded tyrant in the military fatigues — you know, maybe the person is in pajamas on their laptop drinking a soy latte in Silicon Valley,” DeSantis said during a ceremony at the Florida International University’s new Adam Smith Center for the Study of Economic Freedom.
“You know what, when they have the power to silence you, you take it seriously,” he said.
DeSantis couched the new law — and his policy during the pandemic of keeping Florida’s businesses open — in Cold War terms, evoking that struggle between the West and communism.
“We are effectively America’s West Berlin over the last year, and people have viewed this as a free zone,” DeSantis said.
Members of the exile communities compared Democratic policies to those in their home country. Alberto Perosch, a member of the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance, appeared to reference chatter within Democratic circles of adding justices to the U.S. Supreme Court to counter Republican installation of conservative jurists.
“[Hugo] Chavez packed the courts,” Perosch said, adding: “There is not one place in history, any country, that changed its constitution that has a nice story to tell.”
Felix Rodriguez, a Bay of Pigs veteran and CIA operative, compared social media content management to security state surveillance.
The 2022 elections are going to be “the most important elections in the life of the United States of America. If we don’t win back the Senate and the House, we are going to lose the United States of America as we know it,” Rodriguez said.
Additionally, DeSantis will run for reelection in 2022.
The attack line recalled last year’s presidential election, when GOP operatives accused Joe Biden and other Democrats of pursuing “socialist” policies.
Not all Latinos were buying that message. The Florida State Hispanic Chamber of Commerce issued a written statement denouncing the new law as “a dangerous step towards a state-run internet.”
The law “compels businesses to host speech that contradicts the terms and agreements to which users agree — which legal and First Amendment experts have claimed is unconstitutional,” Julio Fuentes, the group’s president, said.
“In the same way that a grocery store can turn customers away for not wearing shoes or shirts in their store, social media companies have the right to turn users away for violating their rules,” he added.
The group also fears “punishing Big Tech for their efforts to foster a positive online experience for all could inherently hurt the businesses that rely on their tools,” Fuentes said.
Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz issued his own written statement complaining about the tech bill plus DeSantis’ decision to stop dispersing an extra $300 per week in federal pandemic unemployment assistance payments.
“These actions are part of a bigger trend in Ron DeSantis’ leadership. 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,” Diaz said.
Also appearing alongside the governor was James O’Keefe of Project Veritas, a conservative platform that targets media and progressive organizations using hidden cameras and microphones, and trying to plant fake stories, in hopes of uncovering political bias — on occasion producing selectively edited material.
O’Keefe was invited “because of his personal experience being censored by Big Tech,” said Christina Pushaw, DeSantis’ new press secretary, via email.
As reported by Forbes, O’Keefe is suing Twitter alleging defamation after it kicked him off the platform for allegedly operating fake accounts.
The Legislature approved the new law during its recent regular session, and not without Democratic support. In calling for the measure earlier, DeSantis cited decisions by social media companies to banish former President Donald Trump after he spread the conspiracy theory that the presidential election had been stolen, resulting in the Capitol riot.
What the law does
The measure (SB 7072) requires social media platforms to be transparent about their rules of conduct and provide notice to users when they change.
Users could sue in state courts and collect as much as $100,000 for every day that a site kicked them off, deleted a post, or used its algorithms to limit exposure to their posts.
Penalties for “deplatforming” — banishing — statewide political candidates would run as high as $250,000; for other candidates, they’d be $25,000 per day. The state’s attorney general could seek those amounts through lawsuits filed under Florida’s Unfair Trade Practices Act.
The bill would allow social media users to opt out of a platform’s algorithms in determining what appears highest on their feed. Instead, they could demand the platforms feed them posts in the order they were written.
Additionally, tech companies that participate in antitrust activity would be barred from state contracts.
“Any Floridian can block any candidate they don’t want to hear from, and that is a right belonging to each citizen. You simply can avert your eyes or not subscribe to what they’re doing. But it’s not for Big Tech to be weighing in on these elections and picking the candidates that have the right to speak and those that should be silenced,” DeSantis said.
DeSantis complained that social media platforms punished conservatives for questioning state lock-down orders or promoting theories that COVID-19 may have originated in a state lab in Wuhan China.
He has argued that Florida did well by reopening its economy, in contrast to lock-down states. Additionally, government intelligence late in the Trump administration suggests researchers at the lab got sick in November 2019. However, intelligence analysts expressed “low confidence in that assessment,” according to CNN.
“When they do that, that shows you that they don’t have confidence that their side will ultimately prevail. Because, ultimately, the truth sill set you free,” DeSantis said.
Technology companies wield more power than did the trusts that controlled the economy in advance of the trust-busting movement around the turn of the 20th Century, he argued.
“These platforms have become our public square. Floridians and other Americans go on these platforms to be able to share ideas,” he said.
Initially, these platforms provided an alternative to “legacy media, and that was very, very positive for millions and millions of Americans,” DeSantis said. By contrast, now they have become “enforcers of orthodoxy.”