WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (WFLA) — Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach. The event was focused on a “Digital Bill of Rights” according to event signage.
Before the main topic, DeSantis provided commentary on border security and recent announcements that Florida had risen above previous state records for tourism. While discussing immigration, the governor echoed previous statements about keeping Florida secure and safe.
Then, he turned to previously passed Florida laws about alleged censorship by social media companies, referring to a so-called “Big Tech Crackdown” in 2021.
DeSantis said the companies describe themselves not being publishers, and their protected status under what’s called Section 230 liability protection from lawsuits, due to current federal telecommunications policies and statutes.
“They are not publishers, because if they were publishers they would not get Section 230 liability from lawsuits, so they hide under the Section 230 from lawsuits, saying they’re not publishers, saying they’re open forums,” DeSantis said. “And yet as we know, we knew in 2021 this was the case, but yet after what’s come out, we know without a shadow of a doubt they are not functioning truly as open platforms. They do have terms and conditions, they do have certain rules, but those rules are applied with a thumb on the scale against the people they disagree with politically.”
DeSantis said social media companies “marginalize entirely,” “ban, deplatform,” and “shadowban” those with conservative views, and that Florida had “consumer protection” and “unfair trade” laws, saying that despite not calling themselves publishers, social media companies monetized data instead.
“You’re monetizing by taking people’s data, who join your services,” DeSantis said.
He went further, explaining how the 2021 law was designed to prevent people from being “policed” or “deplatformed,” particularly for political figures amid elections. The legal challenges to that law has worked its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, due in part to different interpretations and reactions to both Florida’s law, and a similar one from Texas.
DeSantis said he expects “a favorable result” in court and that there were “huge amounts of evidence” about how people are being censored by tech companies.
The governor referred to a recent roundtable he’d held about censorship and “narratives being pushed” by “entrenched medical establishment and corporate press,” regarding disinformation and misinformation policies on certain websites regarding COVID-19.
DeSantis said those who had “dissented from the Fauci narrative” had been targeted, and that evidence of such practice had been revealed in files released by new Twitter CEO Elon Musk, called “The Twitter Files.”
Then, DeSantis turned to data risks and security risks created by the Chinese Communist Party, highlighting rules in Florida about use of TikTok by state government units and employees. He said the latest legal clarifications by the Florida Department of Management Services said that rule now applies to not just TikTok but any digital platform associated with the CCP.
The governor then said his announcement in West Palm Beach would be centered on rights and regulations related to Big Tech and digital data privacy and rights for Floridians.
DeSantis then accused companies of manipulating search results for political and “agendas” and “narratives.”
“It’s nuts to think the amount of information they can compile on you, maybe I’m old fashioned, but I think that if I go buy a service or product, I want it for that, I’m not signing up for them to be able to do whatever they want with your habits,” DeSantis said.
According to reporting by CNBC as far back as 2015, most if not all of these sites, and others, have an expansive list of what content is available to them from users, as well as what they can do with it.
Still, DeSantis and state officials expressed worry over how that plays out for individuals. It is also important to note that some of those policies had been revised, changed, or otherwise adjusted in the years leading up to 2023. Policies at all of the above social media platforms have changed multiple times over the years since their inceptions.
“There’s all this stuff that we’re very concerned about,” DeSantis said. “The other thing that is a really big issue is the search engines, particularly like Google. What they’re doing to manipulate those results to be able to drive an agenda, and to drive an agenda. I mean, clearly, if you look at search today versus 10 or 15 years ago, it’s radically different.”
DeSantis said search traffic has been “polluted,” and that Florida wanted to get a look “behind the scenes” to see what’s happening and proposed using new legislation to “take stronger action” and establish a “digital bill of rights” for Floridians.
The digital bill of rights would:
- Protect private in-person conversations, requiring consent for companies to observe
- Protect the right of individuals to participate in platforms without “unfair censorship”
- Protect the right to know how search engines manipulate search results
- Protect the right to control personal data on the “largest and most common platforms” and require express authorization to monetize it
- Protect children from online harms
- Freedom from surveillance, such as unauthorized surveillance of private conversation via cellphone
The governor said while technically not legal nor happening “in theory” by the U.S. government, though said that he didn’t know “what they actually do with this government,” as reference to the current federal administration of President Joe Biden. He said private companies could “potentially just do it,” so Florida would make “a roadblock.”
“We’re also going to prohibit the unauthorized data or information about a user through a cellphone such as GPS location, biometric data, and other personally identified information,” DeSantis said. He said Florida also wanted to limit potential risks by not just China but other countries of concern.
DeSantis said it would be illegal to access services or sites like TikTok while using internet provided by government buildings, to include schools and higher education institutions. He also said Florida wanted to protect residents from unfair censorship, though officials still waited for a decision by SCOTUS.
“We are going to prohibit all state and local government employees from sending either in an official capacity or using state resources, requests to deplatform or censor any Floridians’ accounts,” DeSantis said. “What you’ve seen in the last few years, you have these busy bodies in government that are going to Facebook, that are going to these tech companies, and they’re trying to get people censored, or they’re trying to get people deplatformed.”
He said it was a violation of the First Amendment and an abuse of power. DeSantis said Florida would formally and informally prevent agreements between agencies and media platforms for content moderation, pointing specifically again at Twitter and alleged cooperation between the Federal Bureau of Investigation to censor “perfectly legitimate information,” calling it clear “collusion to censor” and deprive people of constitutional rights.
Discussing political results on search engines, DeSantis said Google “can rig search engines for their candidates” and took issue with how it was not “considered interference in an election.” He drew comparisons to financial campaign contributions, saying they weren’t largely different in that context.
Florida will also, according to the governor, move to require parental consent when minors in the state use social media, insofar as protecting data privacy.
Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody and Florida Dept. of Law Enforcement Commissioner Mark Glass spoke about issues with search results and censorship, mentioning investigations and multiple lawsuits in location tracking and privacy violation cases.
Moody said courts would continue to have to handle issues of this nature until laws were changed to improve the process and related privacy protections.
Several civilian speakers took the podium next, including Seth Dillon, owner and operator of the Babylon Bee, a satire site.
DeSantis returned to take questions from those gathered. Answering a question about the effects of Senate Bill 7072 from 2021, the big tech bill passed to ostensibly stop censorship for users of online platforms, DeSantis said the bill was set up, knowing it would be contested all the way up to SCOTUS.
“We had eyes wide open on that. If you look at what we’re doing, we’re arguing that these big tech companies ain’t just your normal business down the street,” DeSantis said. “We also understood there’s elements in the federal judiciary that are aligned with big tech ideologically, leftist judges mostly. But then you also have these more old school chamber of commerce Republican judges who say ‘well it’s private so you can’t do anything.'”
DeSantis referred to them as having “blinders” and not understanding the scope of what he said was the amount of both power and protection tech companies in the U.S. have.
“It’s created the exact conflict we predicted would happen,” DeSantis said about the battle over Florida’s censorship law. “I still think it’s going to be a tough case at the Supreme Court.”
The governor said he wasn’t sure which way some justices would lean, but that he couldn’t “just do nothing.” DeSantis said if Florida hadn’t started that process, “nobody would have done a darn thing.”
For a separate question about online protections for children, DeSantis was asked about how several Democratic Florida lawmakers had praised that initiative and filed related legislation.
DeSantis said it was “sad” that lawmakers didn’t work together due to partisan reasons and “manufacturing a narrative,” but that sexuality should not be involved in elementary school, repeating previous criticism of gender topics in schools.
“There is just an effort in different parts of society to inject this into these younger kids, and that’s wrong,” DeSantis said.
Discussing Florida’s “success” with various policies, DeSantis said that the state’s approach to multiple issues had led to the high levels of migration that were underway.
During the question and answer session, DeSantis promoted a book he wrote about Florida policy approaches that was coming out soon, before taking a question from another reporter. The reporter identified themselves as working for The Guardian newspaper, prompting a comment from the governor that it was “left of the left.”
The question by the reporter, focused on removal of diversity, equity, and inclusion programs and initiatives, DeSantis said that those policies were “incredibly divisive” and that its outcomes had been “embarrassing.”
Regarding the state’s latest edition of a migrant relocation program, DeSantis said the individuals going to sanctuary jurisdictions were going in better condition than simply being stranded with nowhere to go.
Talking about the flights to Martha’s Vineyard, DeSantis said some changes to keep a limited version of “Remain in Mexico” had been made, but that as a governor of a state with so many new residents, he had “enough issues with people fleeing blue states” and that adding migrants from the southern border was “too much to handle.”