This article was co-published by ProPublica and Documented. ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.
Florida governor Ron DeSantis has frequently railed against “Big Tech.” He has accused Google, Facebook and Twitter of silencing conservative voices.
But in private, DeSantis has gone even further.
In previously unreported comments made in 2021, DeSantis said technology companies like Google “should be broken up” by the U.S. government.
DeSantis, widely considered a presidential hopeful, made the remarks at an invite-only retreat for the Teneo Network, a “private and confidential” group for elite conservatives. ProPublica and Documented obtained video of the event.
“They’re just too big, they have too much power,” DeSantis said. “I think they’re exercising a more negative influence on our society than the trusts that got broken up at the early 20th century.” He added that large tech companies “are ruining our country. They’re a very negative influence. And so I think you need to be strong about it.”
DeSantis’ call to break up large tech companies occurred at the Teneo Network’s annual retreat in 2021. As ProPublica and Documented recently reported, the Teneo Network aims to “crush liberal dominance” across many areas of American society, according to its chairman Leonard Leo, the influential legal activist and longtime leader of the Federalist Society.
DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests seeking comment. Teneo declined to comment.
In recent years, “Big Tech” has emerged as a favored target for Republican lawmakers and activists, even as prominent conservatives have amassed huge followings on Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. Pointing to such high-profile examples as Donald Trump’s suspension from Facebook and Twitter’s decision to briefly block a story about Hunter Biden’s laptop, Republicans claim that U.S. tech companies have systematically suppressed conservative viewpoints and interfered with elections in ways that have helped Democrats.
A 2021 study issued by New York University researchers concluded those assertions were baseless. “The claim of anti-conservative animus on the part of social media companies is itself a form of disinformation: a falsehood with no reliable evidence to support it,” the researchers for the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights wrote.
Liberal lawmakers and policy experts have also called for stronger antitrust enforcement of major tech companies. During the 2020 presidential race, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., campaigned on a platform of breaking up Amazon, Facebook and Google, saying they had “too much power over our economy, our society, and our democracy.” In 2021, Democrats in Congress introduced legislation to split up tech firms, but the bills never became law.
Matt Stoller, an antitrust expert who works at the American Economic Liberties Project, said it’s hard to tell if DeSantis’ private comments indicate genuine concern about corporate concentration of power or just anger at large firms perceived to be hostile to conservatives.
“There’s a war on the right about antitrust,” Stoller said. “I’m skeptical but open-minded that DeSantis wants to do something serious about economic power.”
Stoller added that he was more intrigued by DeSantis’ decision to call for breaking up tech at an event so closely associated with Leonard Leo. “If Leo buys that argument,” Stoller said, “then it means that a lot of federal judges might tip in that direction, too.”
A spokesperson for Leo declined to comment.
Teneo’s retreats are invite-only affairs limited to its members, their spouses and special guests. ProPublica and Documented obtained a video of DeSantis’ remarks about big tech, which took place during a longer conversation between DeSantis and Vivek Ramaswamy, a biotech entrepreneur who is now running for president as a Republican.
As governor, DeSantis has repeatedly singled out tech and social-media companies, saying their actions “may be one of the most pervasive threats to American self-government in the 21st century.” Legislation he signed in May 2021 not only seeks to give Floridians the ability to sue tech companies and win monetary damages, it also empowers the state’s attorney general to bring cases against tech companies under the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. (Tech companies are challenging the law, and its fate remains unclear.)
In February of this year, DeSantis introduced a plan to create what he called a Digital Bill of Rights for Florida citizens. The proposal, billed as a way to protect privacy and eliminate “unfair censorship,” would ban TikTok on state government devices and block local and state employees “from coordinating with Big Tech companies to censor protected speech.”
But unlike some of his fellow conservatives, DeSantis’ barbed public remarks about big tech have stopped short of urging the U.S. government to break up those tech companies. In his new book, “The Courage to Be Free,” he makes only a passing reference to “enforcing antitrust laws” against “large corporations that are wielding what is effectively public power.”
In his remarks at the Teneo Network retreat, DeSantis described tech companies as “monopolies” that “have more power over our lives than the monopolies of the early 20th century ever had. And it’s not even close.” He listed tech companies’ extensive data collection practices and their ability to shape “core political speech” as evidence of big tech’s monopolistic powers.
He went on to say that tech platforms “enforce their terms unevenly,” adding that “if you have a conservative viewpoint, you’re much more likely to get censored, you’re much more likely to get deplatformed.”
And in response to critics who might say it’s not the role of government at any level to insert itself into the workings of a private business, DeSantis offered a sharp rebuttal. “Protecting the rights of folks to participate in political speech, I think, is an absolutely appropriate role of government,” he said. “And I think that we should do all that we can.”
When pressed by Ramaswamy onstage about using government power to shrink big tech companies, DeSantis stood by his position. “Those big companies are basically an arm of the ruling regime,” he said. “Yeah, that should be something that should be done.” And when asked if he feared that breaking up U.S. companies would strengthen China’s position in global markets, DeSantis appeared unbothered, saying that he believed antitrust action was still the correct course.
“These tech companies are ruining our country,” he said. “They’re a very negative influence. You need to be strong about it. And so that would not be the biggest concern I would have. My concern would be not having massive concentrations of power that are capable of silencing dissent, enforcing an orthodoxy and obviously interfering in elections, which we saw they did in 2020.”
Do you have information about Leonard Leo or the Teneo Network that we should know? Reporter Andy Kroll can be reached via email at [email protected] or via Signal at 202-215-6203.