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28 May, 2021 05:18

Big Tech lobbies sue Florida over new law that seeks to punish social media firms for censorship, shadowbanning & deplatforming

Big Tech lobbies sue Florida over new law that seeks to punish social media firms for censorship, shadowbanning & deplatforming

Two lobbying groups representing a who’s-who of Big Tech giants have slapped the Florida government with a lawsuit, arguing that a newly signed bill targeting social media firms for ‘censorship’ is illegal and unconstitutional.

The suit was filed in the US District Court in Tallahassee on Thursday by the two lobbying outfits, NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), who work on behalf of firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, Amazon, eBay and others. The two groups are seeking to strike down a bill signed by Republican Governor Ron DeSantis earlier this week, which threatens to impose fines and other penalties on major social media sites that “censor” or “deplatform” average users and political candidates.

“By constraining digital services’ ability to fight bad actors online, this law threatens to make the internet a safe space for criminals, miscreants, and foreign agents, putting Floridians at risk,” CCIA president Matt Schruers said in a press release

"Gov. DeSantis is correct that this is a free speech issue: a digital service that declines to host harmful content is exercising its own First Amendment rights."

Signed into law on Monday and set to take effect on July 1, the new bill will empower Florida’s attorney general to sue large platforms under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act, allowing it to fine the companies for up to $250,000 per day if they ban the account of a statewide political candidate, and $25,000 per day for local candidates. Average Floridians will also be able to sue for up to $100,000 under the new law if they feel they were treated unfairly by a platform.

“Some of these massive, massive companies in Silicon Valley are exerting a power over our population that really has no precedent in American history,” DeSantis said during a bill-signing ceremony this week. “One of their major missions seems to be suppressing ideas.”

The bill applies only to major sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as any others that boast more than 100 million monthly users worldwide.

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The two lobbying groups, however, maintain that the bill conflicts with federal law, namely Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which insulates online platforms from legal action when scrubbing content or banning users, so long as the firms act in “good faith.” They also insist the law is unconstitutional, claiming it violates the First, Fifth and 14th Amendments, which guarantee free speech and due process protections. 

“We cannot stand idly by as Florida’s lawmakers push unconstitutional bills into law that bring us closer to state-run media and a state-run internet,” said NetChoice vice-president Carl Szabo. 

"The First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to host and moderate content as they see fit for their business models and users."

Perhaps anticipating objections pointing to Section 230, the bill uses similar language to that provision, specifying that any social media sites that “unfairly censor, shadow ban, deplatform, or apply post-prioritization algorithms to Florida candidates, Florida users, or Florida residents” are not acting in “good faith.” 

The lobbying groups behind Thursday’s suit described the bill as a “first-of-its-kind statute,” pointing to the fact that the courts have had little experience in dealing with similar measures. That leaves some question as to how a federal judge will interpret the newly signed law.  

DeSantis, however, said he anticipated a lawsuit, telling local media that the bill would “absolutely be challenged.” He nonetheless argued elsewhere that “constitutional protections are not a one-way street.”

"On the contrary, 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, discriminatory, and/or deceptive business practices."

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