State-Level Republicans Push Back on Big Tech

DeSantis plan fines companies for removing candidates during election cycle

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February 10, 2021

A Virginia Republican is taking the blueprint set last week by Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R.) and calling for new legislation at the state level to fight perceived bias by tech giants.

Republican Kirk Cox, a longtime member of the state legislature and current gubernatorial candidate, called on Wednesday for new state legislation on big tech to increase transparency and raise the bar for banning users on social media. The move signals increased pressure from the right on state legislatures to regulate tech companies.

The proposal explicitly draws on legislation supported by Florida governor Ron DeSantis that would require platforms to give advance notice to users before their accounts are closed. Both proposals would fine tech companies $100,000 a day for removing statewide political candidates during an election cycle.

Twitter’s ban on President Trump, along with Parler’s removal from Amazon Web Services and the Apple Store, has galvanized conservatives already concerned about censorship and the silencing of right-leaning viewpoints. Movement at the state level appears to be picking up speed: The DeSantis proposal garnered support from other statewide GOP officials, including the speaker of the Florida House and the president of the Florida Senate.

In a statement, Cox outlined three areas the bill would address. It would require platforms to allow users to choose a purely chronological feed or timeline. It would impose a three-strike system before allowing platforms to ban users. And it would give increased responsibility to the state attorney general to investigate censorship and deplatforming.

The DeSantis proposal would also fine any social media company "that uses their content and user-related algorithms to suppress or prioritize the access of any content related to a political candidate or cause on the ballot."

At the federal level, both sides of the aisle are calling to regulate big tech. Democrats are largely calling for increased moderation of speech online, while Republicans want less regulation of user speech and more restrictions on censorship. Sen. Josh Hawley (R., Mo.) put forward a budget amendment last Wednesday banning any new acquisitions by major tech companies.

Critics have suggested the DeSantis bill as written would be unconstitutional, running afoul of First Amendment protections for tech companies. University of Florida communications professor Jasmine McNealy noted that social media platforms have a First Amendment right to determine what speech they present on their platform.

Although pressure on big tech companies will likely continue to mount in the 23 GOP-controlled statehouses, the constitutional barriers may impose hard limits on what can be done absent federal intervention.