Debate today on the Florida Senate floor over SB 7072 centered on the age-old American dilemma over balancing a private company’s right to do business with whom they wish and the rights of citizens to not be discriminated against.
In this case, the debate was over whether “Big Tech,” the common term for a host of private businesses like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Amazon, can restrict access to their platforms to people expressing beliefs which Big Tech deems inappropriate, untruthful or harmful. Many call that practice censoring the free speech of the platforms’ users and discriminatory against conservatives.
Senator Jeff Brandes’ (R-District 24) comments on the Senate floor showed how confusing an issue this is. He was the lone Republican arguing against the bill. He started off saying this bill is not the right direction for the state, that businesses should operate without government interference, that the bill is unconstitutional.”
However, he also argued, “We should be for free speech.”
Brandes said the founding fathers’ “Twitter of the day was the Night Riders who spread the word of the bloody Boston Massacre. I’m sure the British would have wanted to tap down on that content.”
Senator Kelli Stargel (R-District 22) noted that his argument seemed to be an argument for the bill, rather than against it.
She said, “We are a country of free speech and free expression. What we have are social media platforms which say, ‘no, no, no, that is not the free expression we wanted to hear. That is wrong.’ They arbitrarily, as a private business, shut down that expression… They were able to take a whole segment of free press away and say, ’We don’t want to hear those words. We don’t want to hear that speech and we’re going to deplatform you.’ This bill fixes that problem.”
Stargel is one of many Republicans, like Governor Ron DeSantis and other Florida Legislative leaders, who believes conservatives are being unfairly targeted by Big Tech censorship, but Democrats argue the GOP-sponsored legislation is a response to former President Donald Trump’s de-platforming from Twitter and Facebook.
Speaking against the bill, Senator Tina Polsky (D-District 29) said private business has the right to regulate what goes on in their business. “You cannot compel a business to host false, misleading and dangerous information.”
Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer (D-District 34) said the bill is contrary to free market theories and if bakers can refuse to sell cake to a gay couple, social media should be able to restrict access to its platform to users who use “horrible, hate-mongering speech.”
Stargel said, “I understand … businesses have their private rights but when you get into a situation where a business has a monopoly on the message and an ability to direct that message through that monopoly, that is where government can step in. The bill is trying to strike the right balance of allowing free speech and at the same time making sure a business does not arbitrarily block people out they don’t want in.”
Specifically, the bill requires social media to publish the standards, including detailed definitions, it uses in determining how to censor, deplatform, and shadow ban users and apply those standards in a consistent manner among users on the platform. Social media must inform each user about any changes to its user rules, terms, and agreements before implementing changes and may not make changes more than once every 30 days.
It also establishes a violation for social media deplatforming of a political candidate or journalistic enterprise and requires a social medial platform to meet certain requirements when they restrict speech by users.
The bill prohibits social media platforms from deplatforming candidates for political office and allows the Florida Elections Commission to fine a social media platform $100,000 per day for deplatforming statewide candidates and $10,000 per day for deplatforming all other candidates. Additionally, if a social media platform knowingly provides free advertisements for a candidate, such advertisement is deemed an in-kind contribution, and the candidate must be notified.
The bill establishes restrictions for receiving economic benefits or contracting with public entities for certain social media platforms who have violated antitrust laws and who have been placed on the Antitrust Violator Vendor List maintained by the Department of Management Services (DMS).
The bill would also allow a user to bring a law suit against a social media platform for failing to apply consistently certain standards and for censoring or deplatforming without proper notice.
If the bill passes in the House and becomes law, the bill will take effect July 1, 2021.