Florida GOP Bill Targeting Big Tech Clears Committee

Florida GOP Bill Targeting Big Tech Clears Committee
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Hyatt Regency in Orlando, Fla., on Feb. 26, 2021. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Isabel van Brugen

A Florida House panel has advanced legislation backed by Gov. Ron DeSantis that would punish companies should they violate the privacy of Floridians and interfere with citizens’ access to candidates during an election.

The first of a series of bills backed by the Republican governor was cleared by the House Appropriations Committee on March 15 in a 19–8 vote, mostly along partisan lines. Under the proposal from the Florida Legislature, technology companies that deplatform a candidate during an election will face a daily fine of $100,000 until the candidate’s access to the platform is restored.

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.

The legislation also will empower the state’s attorney general to bring action against Big Tech companies under Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act if they violate the new policies laid out in the bill.

Tech companies would have to give users advance notice of a rule change before shutting down an account and apply the rule consistently.

Technology firms using 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 would also face daily fines under the measure.

The bill was filed days after former President Donald Trump’s Twitter account was suspended following the Jan. 6 breach of the U.S. Capitol.

President Donald Trump delivers his farewell speech on Jan. 19, 2021. (White House/YouTube)
President Donald Trump delivers his farewell speech on Jan. 19, 2021. (White House/YouTube)

Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, the sponsor of the bill, said it’s needed to protect Florida’s citizens from arbitrary sanctions by Big Tech companies.

“We’ve gotten to the point now that they’ve become so powerful,” Ingoglia said. “When you have a handful of companies that are so powerful that they sort of dictate what can or cannot be seen or heard in order to make informed choices, I think that that is problematic.”

Critics of the legislation, however, argue that the measure is likely unconstitutional because it infringes on the social media companies’ First Amendment free speech rights by regulating the content allowed on their platforms.

“I share some of your concerns about these Big Tech companies, and I do think we need to do something about them,” said state Rep. Joe Geller, a Democrat, calling the legislation “ill-advised.”

“Sometimes, I’ve argued on some of our bills that we’re talking about ‘something that ain’t broke, so don’t fix it.’ That’s not the case here. This is broke,” Geller said. “I just don’t think it’s within our purview to fix it.”

In announcing the legislation last month during a press conference from the Florida Capitol, DeSantis criticized the manipulation of news and censorship of certain individuals, and called for open, robust debate on issues that affect Americans rather than the censorship that Big Tech companies are currently engaging in.

The governor said companies are discriminating against citizens when they change their rules as it suits them, without warning or consistency.

“Floridians should have the privacy of their data and personal information protected, their ability to access and participate in online platforms protected, and their ability to participate in elections free from interference from Big Tech protected,” DeSantis said on Feb. 2.

The legislation has another House panel hearing before it can receive a floor vote. It hasn’t yet been heard yet in the Senate.

Masooma Haq and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Isabel van Brugen is an award-winning journalist. She holds a master's in newspaper journalism from City, University of London.
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