U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) defended his new legislation to ban “addictive” social media features to students from around the country convened at the National Conservative Student Conference in Washington D.C.
On Monday, Hawley introduced The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act banning several features Hawley says were designed to keep users on the platforms for as long as possible. Features banned under the proposed law would include infinite scrolling, autoplay, and “achievements” on apps, such as “Snapstreak,” where users on the platform Snapchat unlock new badges based on how many consecutive pictures they exchange with another user on the app.
When a student asked at the Young America’s Foundation conference Wednesday how the law would solve any of the “important issues” for big tech, such as censorship of free speech and privacy issues, Hawley defended his bill arguing that big tech companies have contributed little of significance to society.
“What innovation have they [tech companies] really given us?” Hawley asked the student. “We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the moon landing,” Hawley said, going on to argue that tech companies have contributed little of substance in the last 15 years and have only provided Americans addictive services to use for behavioral advertising, such as Snapstreak and autoplay.
“This is the great innovation of the 21st century? I certainly hope not,” Hawley said.
Hawley’s new bill also enhances the powers of the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Health and Human Services, framing the current debate about big tech in the context of a public health crisis. A plethora of studies in recent years have indeed shown social media usage contributes to the rise in anxiety and depression.
The SMART Act gives the two federal agencies authority to ban similar addictive practices on social media platforms. The law’s provisions enhancing the power of the federal agencies contradicts the senator’s remarks to the college students, where the Missouri senator railed against unelected bureaucrats crafting policy without the consent of Congress.
“It is time that we stood up to big government, to the people in government who think that they know better, government by experts, government by unelected administrators, government by unelected elites who are confident they know better than the American people,” Hawley asserted.
Another student asked how addiction to technology was much different than addiction to substances such as nicotine and alcohol. Hawley said those sectors have already been regulated, and that it is time the tech industry was subject to more oversight and made more transparent, with consumers empowered to decide what information about them is being shared.
“If they [tech companies] are going to build a business model based on taking our personal information, tell us what,” Hawley demanded. “Tell us what they are doing and give us the option to say yes or no.”
The freshman senator introduced legislation that would do just that, allowing individuals to explicitly reject companies from tracking them. Hawley also introduced legislation in June aimed at breaking up giant tech companies by amending Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. The bill, titled, “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” removes protections given to tech companies under the act unless the corporations allow external audits of their algorithms to prove political neutrality.
Hawley has been one of the leading senators advocating for more regulation of big tech, joining unlikely allies including 2020 White House hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI.) Sanders pledged earlier this month that if elected president, he would appoint an attorney general whose mission would be to break up tech giants Amazon, Facebook, and Google.
Sanders was specifically critical of Facebook, which was recently slapped with a $5 million fine from the Federal Trade Commission for violating user privacy laws, the largest fine that a federal agency has ever handed to a tech company.
Last week, Gabbard filed a lawsuit against Google for $50 million in damages, alleging inappropriate election interference encroaching on the congresswoman’s right to free speech.
In the lawsuit, Gabbard accuses Google of maliciously taking down her campaign’s advertising account immediately following her performance at the first set of Democratic debates held in Miami last month, when she was the most-searched candidate of the night. The campaign also said its emails were landing in Google’s email spam folders at a disproportional rate compared to those of other candidates.