Florida passes law banning the ‘deplatforming’ of politicians

25 May 2021

Image: © Klenger/Stock.adobe.com

The law allows for fines up to $250,000 per day but legal observers have questioned whether it is constitutional.

Florida has signed a new law into force that prohibits tech companies from banning politicians from their platforms.

The bill, signed yesterday (24 May) by Florida’s Republican governor Ron DeSantis, will penalise the likes of Facebook if they permanently suspend any candidate for office, with fines of up to $250,000 a day.

DeSantis said the law was created to address what he called censorship on social media and to prevent sites from “deplatforming Floridian political candidates”.

“Many in our state have experienced censorship and other tyrannical behaviour first-hand in Cuba and Venezuela. If Big Tech censors enforce rules inconsistently, to discriminate in favour of the dominant Silicon Valley ideology, they will now be held accountable,” De Santis said.

The law is likely to inflame tensions between tech companies and Republican politicians, which have been at loggerheads over the boundaries of content moderation.

This debate has been dominated by Facebook’s indefinite suspension of former US president Donald Trump after the violence of the attempted Capitol insurrection on 6 January. The company’s independent Oversight Board recently upheld the decision to ban the ex-president but told the social network it needed to clarify its policies on suspensions and how they are applied.

Twitter and YouTube also removed Trump from their platforms after the Capitol attacks.

Under Florida’s new bill, Floridians will have the right to sue tech companies that violate the law.

It allows for fines between $25,000 and $250,000 per day for violations, with the higher end of fines for violations that are state-wide. The law still allows for social media platforms to suspend politicians for up to 14 days and to remove content that violates their terms of service.

“Any Floridian can block any candidate they don’t want to hear from, and that is a right that belongs to each citizen — it’s not for Big Tech companies to decide,” the governor’s office said in a statement.

Digital rights organisation the Electronic Frontier Foundation said that Florida’s law is likely to be found unconstitutional.

Deputy executive director Kurt Opsahl pointed to a previous law in Florida in 1974 that stipulated a right of reply for political candidates that was ultimately found unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.

“The legislators who passed this [new] bill probably knew it was unconstitutional, but may have seen political value in passing the base-pleasing statute, and blaming the courts when it gets struck down,” Opsahl wrote.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin