A new legislative proposal by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., would ban elements of social media he views as addictive.
As Americans are spending more and more time glued to social media apps like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube, concerns with technological addiction are merging with rising political anger against Big Tech.
And it’s leading to some out-of-the-box thinking.
“Their business model is increasingly exploitative in nature and I think that these are companies that are trying to evade accountability,” Hawley told NPR.
The freshman Missouri senator drafted a bill that would require social media companies to tell users every 30 minutes how long they’ve been on a platform each day.
Further, the legislation would make illegal the concept of ‘infinite scroll,’ which endlessly populates apps with additional content. It would also prohibit the auto-play of video and audio.
“The big tech platforms have adopted a business model that takes our private information without telling us, sells it without our consent, and then it tries to use exploitative and addictive practices in order to get us to spend more time on their platform, so they can take more stuff from us,” he said.
Hawley’s proposal strikes at the heart of how social media companies make money.
“Their business model is based on user engagement and time spent on the platform … Certainly they’re using sophisticated psychological measures like the auto-play feature and others to keep people on the platform,” said Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for Emerging Technologies at the German Marshall Fund, explaining just how crucial these sorts of features are to the big tech companies.
Hawley’s legislation isn’t likely to pass — so far he doesn’t have any co-sponsors in the Senate. But the openness with which this legislation has been greeted illustrates something deeper about the mood in Washington.
The lack of regulations on social media companies, as compared to their power, is nudging conservatives to go against their general principle — a hands-off approach to business.
Hawley’s bill would have government micromanage which features these tech companies can use, but Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, a champion of free markets, seems at least open to it.
“Nobody wants to see a federal speech police. But at the same time allowing a handful of Silicon Valley billionaires to be the censors of all political speech in America is a terrible outcome. And so I think Sen. Hawley’s bill is a positive step in the right direction,” Cruz said.
Democrats have also increasingly turned against big tech — but for different reasons. Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he sees elements of Hawley’s proposal that he could support.
“Like in any business there are already prohibitions about deceptive practices — basic consumer protections,” Warner said. “We don’t have any of that in in the social media world… the rub comes in how you define those practices.”
All of this is to say that Hawley’s proposal is more than a long-shot bill.
His proposal represents the changing nature of the conversation around technology in Washington, D.C. — and a converging frustration about Big Tech that is bringing lawmakers out of their comfort zones to propose unorthodox solutions.