Lest you miss out on the delightful goings-on in U.S. politics these days, picture this: A politician passes a draconian, poorly thought-out, maybe illegal regulation, designed mostly as a symbolic gesture to his base but that will likely help none of his actual constituents. Then, a pro-business lobby jumps in to decry the law as a threat to society and reflexively reminds said politician that he’s not supposed to pass any laws that impact the wallets of the lobby’s client list. Yes, it’s American democracy, well-oiled machine that it is, chugging along and hard at work.
This sad little scene is currently playing out in Florida, ground zero for bad political decisions (and pushy businesses, coincidentally!). The politician in question is Trump-acolyte Gov. Ron DeSantis, who last week passed what seems like a law written by someone who gets all of their information about the U.S. legislative system from Saturday morning cartoons.
The Florida Big Tech Bill has made waves for hastily barring large social media companies like Facebook and Twitter from moderating certain kinds of user content. Moreover, the law prohibits said companies from “de-platforming” Florida political candidates, essentially freeing politicians from the threat of “censorship,” as DeSantis has put it. It also allows Floridians to sue the companies if they feel discriminated against, while also giving the state the ability to fine firms for violations. Doubtlessly a big head-nod to our former president (who was famously kicked off both Twitter and Facebook and hasn’t been invited back), the legality of the bill has been roundly questioned and its weird, arbitrary structure has been challenged (the law takes aim at large social media companies while giving other large media corporations like Disney a pass, given its big footprint in Florida).
Two large Big Tech consortiums have now stepped in to sue the Florida government over the law. The lobbying groups NetChoice and the Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA) are listed as plaintiffs in a new lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Tallahassee, with the two associations decrying the bill as a threat to consumers and the businesses targeted by the law.
There are a lot of ways you could’ve harpooned Florida’s regulation, and, frankly, NetChoice and CCIA come at it from literally the worst possible angle. The suit’s basic contention is that by taking away a trillion-dollar company’s right to de-platform whoever it wants, the Florida government is actually threatening free speech—i.e., the corporation’s speech, or, at least, its right to express itself by booting anybody it wants off its platform. The trade associations claim that the law represents “unprecedented restrictions” that are a “blatant attack on a wide range of content-moderation choices that these private companies” are entitled to. They compare Twitter to a newspaper, in some ill-gotten attempt to conflate the regulation of social media companies to government censorship of the press. They talk about how unfair it is for the state to play an outsized role in the affairs of “private enterprise.” The lawsuit makes good points here and there but, in the end, it’s really less about the fact that Florida wants to make local politicians unimpeachable and more a very libertarian sort of argument, wherein the corporation is really the fundamentally important unit here, not the actual people using its services.
This makes a lot of sense since the organizations behind the lawsuit are business lobbyists, but it doesn’t make their arguments any more appealing. Instead, it paints a sort of grim picture, in which the American people have two equally feckless voices to listen to on the moderation/free speech issue: Ron DeSantis and his weird train of bullshit or the hired guns of America’s corporate technocracy.
The entities behind the lawsuit aren’t so great, either. NetChoice, whose self-stated mission is to “make the internet safe for free enterprise and free expression,” is really only concerned with keeping the government off the backs of its members—which is what this lawsuit is really about. In 2018, NetChoice joined Americans for Tax Reform and a bunch of other libertarian organizations in arguing that the state of South Dakota did not have the right to tax online sales for e-commerce companies located outside of the state. Similarly, CCIA claims its goal is to promote “open markets, open systems, open networks, and full, fair, and open competition,” and, because of its obvious devotion to those principles, represents the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Google, eBay, and a bunch of other similarly sized small businesses. It recently asked the state of New York to tone down its proposed privacy law because, you know, it cares about consumers.
What you really have here is two self-interested free-market forces (i.e., the business groups and the staunchly libertarian DeSantis) eating each other, while both do nothing of particular value to fix the social problems that this whole fight is about in the first place. And, frankly, we do have some unsettled issues when it comes to the tensions between content moderation and freedom of speech.
On the one hand, giving politicians an unimpeachable platform to say whatever they want and face no consequences is clearly a recipe for disaster (just look at Trump’s penchant for spouting harmful, potentially deadly covid disinformation, while also riling up the worst political elements of his base). On the other hand, the impulse to give a giant company like Twitter carte blanche to control the limits of political discourse by arbitrarily disappearing people is not great either. Yes, Trump getting booted was probably a net positive for the internet overall (and also very funny), but you can see how Big Tech firms, as a vehicle for limiting public consumption of specific viewpoints and information, can also be co-opted to block the voices of legitimate political groups and communities. See recent accusations that social media companies have randomly been muting Palestinian activists, for instance.
While Florida’s bill is really about enshrining politicians’ power, the NetChoice/CCIA lawsuit is just a corporate rebuttal: i.e., a call to put that power in the hands of large companies. The big thing missing here is anything resembling either party giving a damn about the interests or perspectives of normal people, ostensibly the reason that companies and politicians exist in the first place.