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Senator Pushes Bill To Curb 'Exploitative And Addictive' Social Media Practices

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 14, 2019 6:17 pm

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 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.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Americans are spending more and more time glued to social media apps like Instagram, Facebook and YouTube. So much so, concerns about technology addiction and rising political anger against social media companies have led to some legislative proposals that would scale back their power. NPR's Tim Mak has more on one Republican lawmaker's effort to ban what he sees as the addictive elements of social media.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Senator Josh Hawley is a freshman senator from Missouri, but he is quickly making a name for himself as the representative for an increasing number of Americans who are angry with social media companies.

JOSH HAWLEY: Yeah, well, their business model is increasingly exploitative in nature. And I think that, look; these are companies that have tried to evade accountability.

MAK: Hawley proposed a bill that would require social media companies to tell users every 30 minutes how long they've been on the platform each day. It would also ban features that he views as addictive. The legislation would make illegal infinite scroll, which endlessly populates apps with additional content. It would also prohibit the autoplay of video and audio.

HAWLEY: The big tech platforms have adopted a business model that takes our private information without telling us, sells it without our consent and then tries to use exploitative and addictive practices in order to get us to spend more time on their platforms so they can take more stuff from us.

MAK: Hawley's proposal strikes at the heart of that business model.

LINDSAY GORMAN: Seventy percent of the time spent on the YouTube platform, for example, is spent watching videos that the algorithm recommends.

MAK: That's Lindsay Gorman, a fellow for emerging technologies at The German Marshall Fund, explaining just how crucial these sorts of features are to these businesses.

GORMAN: Their business model is based on user engagement and time spent on the platform. Certainly, they're using sophisticated psychological measures, like the autoplay feature, and others to keep people on the platform.

MAK: Hawley's legislation isn't likely to pass, 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 what features these tech companies can use. But Republican Senator Ted Cruz, a champion of free markets, seems at least open to it.

TED CRUZ: 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 Senator Hawley's bill is a positive step in the right direction.

MAK: Democrats have also increasingly turned against big tech but for different reasons. Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he sees elements of Hawley's proposal that he could support.

MARK WARNER: Like in any business, there are already prohibitions about deceptive practices. There's basic consumer protections. We don't have any of that in the social media world. The rub comes in how you define those practices.

MAK: All of this is to say that Hawley's proposal is more than just a longshot 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.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.