Monday, December 6News That Matters

Florida, in a First, Will Fine Social Media Companies That Bar Candidates

WASHINGTON — Florida on Monday became the first state to regulate how companies like Facebook, YouTube and Twitter moderate speech online, by imposing fines on social media companies that permanently bar political candidates in the state.

The law, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, is a direct response to Facebook’s and Twitter’s bans of former President Donald J. Trump in January. In addition to the fines for barring candidates, it makes it illegal to prevent some news outlets from posting to their platforms in response to the contents of their stories.

Mr. DeSantis said signing the bill, which is likely to face a constitutional challenge, meant that Floridians would be “guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley elites.”

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

The bill is part of a broader push among conservative state legislatures to crack down on the ability of tech companies to manage posts on their platforms. The political efforts took off after Mr. Trump was barred after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Lawmakers around the country have echoed Mr. Trump’s accusations that the companies are biased against conservative personalities and publications, even though those accounts often thrive online.

More than a hundred bills targeting the companies’ moderation practices have been filed nationwide this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many of the bills have died, but a proposal is still being debated in Texas.

Twitter declined to comment. Google and Facebook did not immediately offer comments on the signing of the bill.

The Florida law makes it illegal to bar a candidate for state office for more than 14 days, in a move that would seem to outlaw the kind of permanent ban the social media platforms applied to Mr. Trump’s accounts. Companies would be fined $250,000 per day for cases where they barred a candidate for statewide office. The fine is lower for candidates seeking other offices.

The law says the platforms cannot take down or otherwise prioritize content from a “journalistic enterprise” that reaches a certain size. Conservatives were outraged last year when Facebook and Twitter limited the reach of a New York Post article about the contents of a laptop it said belonged to Hunter Biden, the younger son of President Biden.

Under the law, platforms are also required to be clear about how they decide to take down content or leave it up. Users could sue the platform if they felt those terms were inconsistently applied.

A late amendment to the bill exempts companies from the law if they own a theme park or an entertainment venue larger than 25 acres. That means the law is unlikely to apply to websites owned by Disney, which operates the Walt Disney World Resort, and Comcast, which owns Universal Studios Florida.

In Florida, as in dozens of other states, the Republican lawmakers’ push to punish social media companies follows the party’s other efforts to feed the demands of a conservative base that remains loyal to Mr. Trump.

Florida, along with Republican-run legislatures in Oklahoma and Iowa, has in recent weeks passed legislation limiting the right to protest and providing immunity to drivers who strike protesters in public streets.

And the Republican push to make voting harder continues unabated after Mr. Trump’s relentless lying about the results of the 2020 election. Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia signed into law new restrictions on voting, as did Mr. DeSantis in Florida, and Texas Republicans are poised to soon pass the nation’s biggest rollback of voting rights.

The partywide, nationwide push stems from Mr. Trump’s repeated grievances. During his failed re-election campaign, Mr. Trump repeatedly pushed to repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunity to certain tech firms from liability for user-generated content, even as he used their platforms to spread misinformation. Twitter and Facebook eventually barred Mr. Trump after he inspired his supporters, using their platforms, to attack the Capitol on Jan. 6.

Republican lawmakers in Florida have echoed Mr. Trump’s statements.

“I have had numerous constituents come to me saying that they were banned or de-platformed on social media sites,” Representative Blaise Ingoglia said during the debate over the bill.

But Democrats, libertarian groups and tech companies all say the law violates the tech companies’ First Amendment rights to decide how to handle content on their own platforms. It also may prove impossible to bring complaints under the law because of Section 230, the legal protections for web platforms that Mr. Trump has attacked.

“It is the government telling private entities how to speak,” said Carl Szabo, the vice president at NetChoice, a trade association that includes Facebook, Google and Twitter as members. “In general, it’s a gross misreading of the First Amendment.” He said the First Amendment was designed to protect sites like Reddit from government intervention, not protect “politicians from Reddit.”

The Florida measure is likely to be challenged in court, said Jeff Kosseff, a professor of cybersecurity law at the Naval Academy.

“I think this is the beginning of testing judges’ limits on these sorts of restrictions for social media,” he said.