‘Facebook should block everyone in Florida’: Social media law signed by Ron DeSantis slammed by experts and users alike

‘There’s no chance this will survive in court,’ law professor says of new legislation

Gustaf Kilander
Washington, DC
Tuesday 25 May 2021 23:25 BST
Gov. DeSantis signs bill that will give Floridians protection against big tech censorship

Florida’s new social media law signed by governor Ron DeSantis on Monday has been blasted by experts and social media users alike.

A Miami law professor said the law, which imposes large fines on companies that deactivate the accounts of political candidates, “is so obviously unconstitutional, you wouldn’t even put it on an exam”.

The law is considered by many to be a direct response to Republican anger about the removal of then-President Donald Trump from social media platforms after the Capitol riot on 6 January and a feeling among conservatives that they are being censored by big tech.

Michael Froomkin, a law professor at the University of Miami, told Wired: “This law looks like a political freebie. You get to pander, and nothing bad happens, because there’s no chance this will survive in court.”

The law is the first of its kind, but some experts say it will be struck down in court because of its lack of legal standing.

The law severely limits the ability of social media companies to moderate online content. The legislation also prohibits social media platforms from taking any actions against “journalistic enterprises”.

Conservatives were furious last year when Twitter and Facebook restricted the spread of a New York Post article about the contents of a laptop that the article said belonged to then-presidential candidate Joe Biden's son Hunter Biden.

Many mocked a late amendment to the bill that exempts any companies from the law if they own an entertainment venue or a theme park measuring more than 25 acres.

This effectively puts any sites owned by Disney and Comcast in the clear as the companies own Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Florida, respectively.

Podcaster Jody Avirgan tweeted: “Facebook should absolutely buy a 26-acre exotic animal farm outside Tallahassee as retaliation.”

One Twitter user responded: “That’s giving in. Facebook should block everyone in Florida, refuse to do business in the state until the law is repealed or overturned by the courts.”

Daily Beast editor Justin Baragona added that you “gotta admire the shamelessness”.

Matt Schruers, the president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association blasted the exemption, saying in a statement: “If the Florida legislature actually believed that efforts to protect Internet users from harmful content threatened free expression, it wouldn’t be excluding digital services that own local theme parks.”

Twitter user Charles Fracchia wrote: “I hope that social media companies tell Florida to f*** off. If social media companies really wanted to do something about this law, they would close every single account in Florida. Wouldn’t that be interesting?”

Carl Szabo, the vice president at trade association NetChoice, which includes some of the companies affected by the law, told The New York Times that the legislation was “a gross misreading of the First Amendment”.

He added that the First Amendment was designed to protect sites like Reddit from politicians, not “politicians from Reddit”.

Mr Szabo told The Washington Post: “If this law could somehow be enforced, it would allow lawful but awful user posts including pornography, violence and hate speech that will make it harder for families to safely navigate online.”

The law would also make it easier to bring lawsuits against tech companies for both the state attorney general as well as individuals.

Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University Law School in California, told The Washington Post that the bill was “obviously unconstitutional” as it restricts editorial discretion. Mr Goldman said parts of the law would be preempted by Section 230, a federal law disliked by some conservatives, including Mr Trump, that protects internet companies from lawsuits over content posted on their sites.

“I see this bill as purely performative, it was never designed to be law but simply to send a message to voters,” Mr Goldman said.

In a statement, governor DeSantis said Floridians would be “guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites”.

“If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favour of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable,” he added.

The governor’s press secretary Christina Pushaw told The Independent that “constitutional protections are not a one-way street,” adding that “there is a delicate balance in ensuring that citizens and businesses alike are protected against government overreach, but also, that all consumers are protected against abusive and discriminatory business practices”.

Ms Pushaw went on to say that “Big Tech companies enforce their own terms of service inconsistently, discriminating along political and ideological lines” and that “regular people have been censored for questioning Silicon Valley orthodoxy”.

She added that lobbyists for these companies are “in bed with congressional and state legislators to avoid regulation and possible antitrust actions”.

“Big Tech is in some ways more powerful than government, and certainly less accountable,” she said.

“It is recognized that government has a role in protection against discrimination, and this law is within that authority to rein in a powerful entity that oversteps individuals’ free speech rights,” she concluded.

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