Florida’s attempted crackdown on big tech is making waves across the country–and raising the hackles of business and first-amendment advocates alike.
Republican Governor Ron DeSantis is imminently poised to sign into law a bill banning social media companies from “deplatforming” political candidates or media outlets. Under the bill, which passed the state legislature nearly along party lines on April 29, companies face fines of $250,000 per day for kicking candidates for statewide office off their platforms, and $25,000 per day for local candidates. The move from Florida’s Republican-led legislature, which will likely face near-immediate legal challenges, is seen as a reaction to Facebook and Twitter banning ex-president Donald Trump from their platforms in January following the siege of the U.S. Capitol, and Amazon Web Services’s web-hosting suspension of conservative social network platform Parler the same month.
The fines are significant, and apply to companies based anywhere–not just in Florida. So if you’re a small-business owner who hosts any kind of online community, you’re probably asking yourself: Should I be concerned?
For now, not unless you run a large platform. As written, the law currently only applies to social media companies with annual gross revenues of at least $100 million, or at least 100 million monthly users, globally. It also only protects political candidates in Florida. So, if you permanently suspend a candidate for statewide and local elected offices in the state–but not federal offices like the U.S. Congress and the presidency–you could get dinged.
“This is really red-state Florida vs. liberal Silicon Valley, California,” says Clay Calvert, a law professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law and College of Journalism and Communications. “There’s a lot of political symbolism in adopting this.”
However, this doesn’t mean it won’t set a precedent for other states, nor does it mean entrepreneurs outside of Florida should ignore the bill, should it become law. Right now, if you run a large social media platform and any of your users log in from Florida, this law would definitely be your problem. You’d need to adjust your suspension policies–temporary suspensions of up to 14 days would still be allowed under the law, as would deleting individual posts violating your terms of service. Also, you’d want to consider setting aside a predetermined budget for paying out fines.
The law could also present systemic issues if it catches on in other states, as it’s expected to do. First, the language of the law itself could change, in Florida or elsewhere, to include smaller companies. The revenue and user floors could be lowered with little fanfare, opening smaller social media platforms–or any website with a public messaging function, like online forums or even blogs with comment sections–to liability. As written in the Florida bill, those floors are arbitrary parameters simply meant to prove that that these digital spaces are popular enough to function as a “public town square.” That’s a key part of the legislation, Calvert says: Business advocates claim the law is an overreach into the affairs of private companies, so the town-square argument could help it more easily pass constitutional muster. However, most public town squares have a much smaller capacity than 100 million, so it’s unclear exactly where that floor could ultimately land for websites.
If the law is allowed to stand, other Republican-led states could be far more likely to adopt their own version of the law. Businesses would then face a patchwork of varying standards across the country. Functionally, they’d be forced to adopt the standards of whichever state ends up having the strictest legislation.
In that hypothetical future, it would make sense for businesses to lobby for new federal legislation to supersede state laws–if for no other reason than to simplify the regulatory process, Calvert says.
Legal challenges would come first, of course. The Internet Association, a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group representing tech companies including Facebook, Amazon, and Google, issued a statement, shortly after the bill passed Florida’s legislature: “The Florida Legislature has decided to put politics over policy with the passage of SB 7072. The bill is unconstitutional, arbitrarily exempts large Florida-based corporations, and will hurt the citizens of the state.”
While other states could move to ratify this law, even if Florida is mired in legal challenges, there is one reason for small business owners hosting communities to be encouraged. The states that are the most likely candidates to do so–Calvert suggests Texas and Georgia are two–are also home to big tech companies. Both states have worked hard in recent years to attract large tech companies, leading to a hefty Silicon Valley presence in cities like Austin and Atlanta. Implementing a similar law may sow frustration among companies and cause them to relocate, which would be an economic disincentive that some legislators might be loath to encourage.