Florida Is Already Getting Sued for Its In all probability Unlawful Social Media Ban
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)
Imagine this, so you don’t miss out on the good news in U.S. politics these days: a politician hands over a draconian, ill-conceived, possibly illegal ruling, primarily intended as a symbolic gesture to his base, but probably neither will its actual components help both. Then a pro-business lobby steps in to decipher the law as a threat to society and reflexively reminds the politician not to pass laws that affect the lobby’s client list wallets. Yes, it’s American democracy, a well-oiled machine that chugs and works hard.
That sad little scene is currently taking place in Florida, Ground Zero for bad policy decisions (and intrusive business, by accident!). The politician in question is Trump acolyte Governor Ron DeSantis, who passed it seems last week a law written by someone who gets all of their information about the US legislative system from cartoons on Saturday morning.
The Florida Big Tech Bill made waves after major social media companies like Facebook and Twitter were hastily prevented from moderating certain types of user content. In addition, the law prohibits these companies from “de-platforming” Florida political candidates, essentially relieving politicians from the threat of “censorship,” as DeSantis put it. In addition, Floridians can sue companies if they feel discriminated against and give the state the ability to penalize companies for violations. Undoubtedly a big nod to our former president (who is known to have been bumped by both Twitter and Facebook and not invited back) has the legitimacy of the bill was asked all around and its strange, arbitrary structure has been questioned (the law targets large social media companies and gives other big media companies like Disney a pass due to its large footprint in Florida).
Two large big tech consortia have now sued the Florida government over the law. The lobby groups NetChoice and the Association of the Computer and Communications Industry (CCIA) are listed as plaintiffs in a new lawsuit filed in US District Court in Tallahassee, with the two associations deciphering the bill as a threat to consumers and businesses affected by the law.
There are many ways you could have harpooned Florida’s regulation, and frankly, NetChoice and CCIA literally come from the worst possible angle. The suit’s basic claim is that by taking away a trillion dollar company’s right to de-platform whomever it wants, the Florida government is actually threatening freedom of speech – that is, the company’s speech, or at least its right to get by Boot express everyone who wants it from its platform. The trade associations claim that the law is “unprecedented restrictions” that are an “blatant attack on a wide variety of content moderation opportunities that these private companies are entitled to”. They are likening Twitter to a newspaper in order to bring regulation of social media companies in line with state press censorship. They talk about how unfair it is for the state to play an excessive role in “private enterprise” affairs. The lawsuit scores good points here and there, but ultimately it’s less about Florida making local politicians incontestable and more about a very libertarian type of argument where the corporation is really the fundamental entity here, not the actual people who use their services.
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This makes a lot of sense as the organizations behind the lawsuit are business lobbyists, but it no longer makes their arguments delightful. Instead, it paints a kind of somber picture in which the American people have to hear two equally rash voices on the subject of moderation / freedom of speech: Ron DeSantis and his strange bullshit train or the rented weapons of American corporate technocracy.
The entities behind the lawsuit aren’t that great either. NetChoice, whose self-declared mission is to “make the Internet safe for free enterprise and expression,” is really only concerned with keeping the government off the backs of its members – that is what this lawsuit is really about. In 2018, NetChoice joined the Americans for Tax Reform and a number of other libertarian organizations in which to argue The state of South Dakota had no right to tax online sales for e-commerce businesses outside of the state. Similarly, CCIA claims its aim is to promote “open markets, open systems, open networks, and full, fair and open competition” and, because of its apparent commitment to these principles, represents companies such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, eBay and a number of other small businesses of similar size. It recently asked New York State to weaken the proposed data protection law because it cares about consumers.
What you really have here are two selfish free market forces (i.e. the corporate groups and the decidedly libertarian DeSantis) Eating each other while neither doing anything of particular value to solve the social problems that this whole struggle is all about. And frankly, we have some unresolved issues when it comes to the tension between content moderation and free speech.
On the one hand, giving politicians an incontestable platform on which to say what they want and not face any consequences is clearly a recipe for disaster (base). On the other hand, the impetus to give a huge company like Twitter a carte blanche to control the boundaries of political discourse through the arbitrary disappearance of people is not great either. Yes, Trump’s booting was probably a net positive for the internet as a whole (and very fun too), but you can see how big tech firms can be co-opted as a means of limiting public consumption of certain points of view and information, including by blocking the votes more legitimately political groups and communities. See recent allegations that social media companies happened to mute Palestinian activists, for example.
While Florida’s bill is really about entrenching the power of politicians, the lawsuit against NetChoice / CCIA is just a corporate rebuttal: that is, a call to put that power in the hands of big corporations. The big thing that’s missing here is anything resembling a party that cares about the interests or prospects of normal people, supposedly the reason why corporations and politicians exist in the first place.