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SummaryMost relevantAll NewsAnalyst Reco.Other languagesPress ReleasesOfficial PublicationsSector newsMarketScreener Strategies

Florida Governor Signs Bill to Bar Twitter, Facebook and Others From Blocking Political Candidates

05/24/2021 | 10:15pm EDT

By John D. McKinnon

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill on Monday aimed at making big tech platforms more accountable for their content decisions, a move with political overtones that appeared likely to draw legal challenges.

Mr. DeSantis, a potential GOP presidential contender with ties to former President Donald Trump, said the legislation could help conservatives defend themselves from unfair de-platforming and other online restrictions. Social-media companies generally deny that their decisions to ban or otherwise restrict content and users are skewed by political bias.

The bill says that "social media platforms have unfairly censored, shadow banned [and] de-platformed" Floridians.

It would prohibit tech platforms from banning Florida political candidates. The bill says large social-media platforms may not ban or delete the account of a Florida political candidate for more than 14 days, and authorizes a fine of $250,000 a day for violations related to candidates running for statewide office. It also outlaws censoring or de-platforming journalistic enterprises based on content, in an apparent response to Facebook's and Twitter's decisions -- later reversed -- to limit sharing of an October New York Post article that made allegations about Hunter Biden, President Biden's son.

The bill also requires social-media companies to be transparent about their content moderation practices and give users notice of changes to their policies. People who are treated unfairly in content decisions will have the right to sue companies that violate the law and win money damages, Mr. DeSantis said. The legislation would apply to companies with at least 100 million monthly users world-wide.

Florida officials also said the legislation would bring more transparency to platforms' use of algorithms. It also would restrict companies' ability to contract with public entities if they are found to have violated antitrust laws.

The Florida legislative effort gained new momentum when Mr. Trump was kicked off several big social-media platforms, including Twitter and Facebook, after a pro-Trump crowd stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.

"Today, Floridians are being guaranteed protection against the Silicon Valley power grab on speech, thought, and content," Mr. DeSantis said on Twitter. "We the people are standing up to tech totalitarianism with the signing of Florida's Big Tech Bill."

Facebook Inc. and Twitter Inc. declined to comment. Alphabet Inc., owner of Google and YouTube, didn't respond to a request for comment.

Tech allies in Washington suggested the legislation is a violation of the companies' First Amendment free-speech rights. They said without some moderation by tech companies Florida's law would allow foreign-extremist content, as well as violent and hateful speech and pornography, to flourish across the internet.

Tech allies also chided Florida legislators for carving out digital services run by companies that own big theme parks, such as Walt Disney Co.

"This law is unconstitutional and will ultimately leave Floridians more exposed to bad actors online," said Robert Callahan, senior vice president of state government affairs at the Internet Association, a trade group. "It is also more about politics than prevention, as the bill arbitrarily exempts major mass media corporations as long as they are also in the theme park business."

Disney didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

The bill likely faces multiple potential legal hurdles. Perhaps the biggest is the First Amendment rights of the social-media platforms. The bill suggests that those rights might be limited because the platforms have effectively become public squares -- places where the free-speech rights of users are usually paramount. That's an argument that has proved difficult to win in other legal battles over internet users' free-speech rights, however.

The law also could face problems under Section 230 of the federal Communications Decency Act. That 1996 law gave the internet companies sweeping immunity from legal consequences of their users' actions. It also gave them broad ability to police content.

The Florida bill is the latest effort from state legislatures to rein in what lawmakers allege as unchecked power of large technology companies. Arizona, Maryland and Virginia are among states where lawmakers have sought to pass laws on issues ranging from online privacy and digital advertisements to app-store fees collected by Google and Apple Inc. A New York state senator in February introduced a bill that would collect a tax on the revenue that companies generate from the sale of residents' consumer data.

Bowdeya Tweh and Ryan Tracy contributed to this article.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-25-21 0015ET

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