The business of Big Tech has been front and center in the 116th Congress, and unlike in years past, now many Republicans are some of the loudest voices calling for change. Chief among this new breed of would-be Silicon Valley reformers is freshman GOP senator Josh Hawley, of Missouri, who has turned progressive and conservative heads alike with some of the sweeping actions he’s proposed since being seated in January.
Just last month the 39-year-old dropped legislation aimed at curbing Americans’ compulsion to keep checking our screens for likes and retweets. The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act seeks to block companies like Facebook and Twitter from having product features like infinite scroll on users’ feeds or YouTube’s autoplay feature—which always has more content queued up. And in June, Hawley introduced a bill that would force large tech companies to be audited for “politically biased moderation practices” before qualifying for protections under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act—a controversial measure that has been roundly criticized by tech organizations, a number of Democrats, and even some Republicans.
Hawley has also caught the attention of President Trump and his family. When the White House hosted a social media summit last month, the junior senator was given a national perch to blast social media companies for what he and other Republicans have claimed is “conservative censorship.” (While Silicon Valley leans liberal, social media companies have repeatedly denied that political bias plays a role in content moderation.)
Before Congress left Washington for the month of August, WIRED was invited into Hawley’s office at the Capitol for an exclusive interview on topics ranging from whether he thinks big tech firms are monopolies that need to be broken up to why tech issues need to be front and center for the contemporary GOP.
This transcript is slightly edited for length and clarity.
WIRED: Now, you’ve turned many heads in your short time here on the Hill for being one of the loudest critics of Silicon Valley firms. What do you see as your role in this broader debate here?
Josh Hawley: I think part of my role is to help stimulate a conversation and healthy discussion about the role that these tech companies—the dominant platforms, in particular—are playing in our economy, in our politics, and that they’re playing in our future. These are companies that are supposed to represent the best of America, but in the last couple of decades, I think they’ve given us some of the worst of America. We’re dealing with pathologies that they have at the least contributed to. If you look at the studies that show correlations between increased social media usage or significant social media usage and depression among children and teenagers, suicide rates, difficulty in forming meaningful relationships—now, I should emphasize, all of this is early, because we still need peer-reviewed studies, we need a lot more data—but the early returns are really, really worrisome. Just like the early returns on their effect on the economy are worrisome. They’ve given us an economy, the Silicon Valley economy, where you have a narrow slice of people who make a lot of money, become billionaires. And then what about everybody else? I mean are they driving jobs to the middle of the country? Are they driving jobs to the middle of America, the middle of our society? I’m worried that they’re going to give us the Uber economy, where you’ve got a narrow top echelon that make billions, and then you’ve got everybody else who gets paid cents on the dollar and, you know, can’t afford to live.
You’re sounding like Elizabeth Warren.
Well, I think everybody who cares about workers, everybody who cares about working families, everybody who cares about competition and innovation needs to be concerned about big tech.
And now your Section 230 bill is very controversial as it relates to First Amendment issues. I was talking to Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon yesterday. And he said that it tramples on everything conservatives have stood for for years. What do you make of that?
Last I looked, he wasn’t a conservative, but I appreciate the commentary … Senator Wyden has been around a long time and I understand he has pride of authorship in the original Section 230 that dates back to when I was in high school, but a lot has changed since then. The world has changed. The internet has changed. And I think we need to keep pace with change. The dominant monopoly-sized platforms that exist today didn’t exist then, and the business model they employ today wasn’t employed then. These are all new developments. The state of the law actually has—the underlying law in the courts—has changed a lot since the 1990s. So I think we’ve got to deal with the reality that we live in and the needs of families and consumers now, not what they may have been, gosh, almost 30 years ago.
There’s a lot of different competing reform proposals for Section 230. What made you come at yours from your angle?
If you look at the congressional findings from when Section 230 was originally passed, one of the things that Congress notes in the findings is that the internet—now keep in mind this was the mid-1990s now, so this was all very, very early—but they said the internet is going to be a forum for a diversity of political viewpoints and a forum for cultural viewpoints and a forum for free expression. And that was the assumption, and that was the hope. So Section 230 was supposed to provide a shield for these new platforms—you know, again, to even call them platforms is a little bit misleading, because they didn’t exist in this form back then—the new internet providers, allow them to moderate violent content and indecent content. Back then Congress actually required these platforms to moderate indecent content, and then give them an immunity shield in order to do that. And what’s happened over the years is that those indecency requirements have been struck down in the courts, so they no longer exist. And the companies now have used the Section 230 shield to begin exercising editorial judgments.
“These are not things that they just sort of bumbled into. These platforms have worked over years with psychologists, with experts in these fields to try and develop techniques that will get people hooked.”
Senator Josh Hawley
And also something else biggest happened in the meantime, a handful of platforms have gotten to be monopoly-sized—Google, Facebook, Twitter—and to exercise enormous power of the market, in a way I don’t think anybody would have anticipated in the 1990s. So these platforms’ control over speech, over the channels of social communication, heck, even over political discourse is really, really significant. And my view is, if they want to act like a more traditional publisher and they want to make content decisions based on political viewpoint, they’re totally free to do that. They’re absolutely free to do that under the law. They shouldn’t be penalized under the law, but they should not get the special immunity that Congress gave them in the 1990s on the assumption that they would be moderating just indecent content and would otherwise be providing open forum for communication.
What’s the status of your bill? Do you think it might be melded with some of the other proposals out there?
There’s a diversity of viewpoints there about how it should be revised and what the trigger should be and why. But I think it’s very significant that, just in the last few weeks, you’ve had folks who thought very seriously about this issue say, “You know what, it is time. It is time to enter the 21st century here. And it’s time to think about the state of the law now and the needs of consumers and families.” So I’m hopeful that will continue to build momentum here, and I’m hopeful that we’ll see a lot of tech legislation move forward. To me, if it’s part of a comprehensive bill, that can be OK. I don’t think, though, that we should get too hung up on having a comprehensive tech bill, whether that’s a comprehensive privacy bill or anything else. Sometimes those big packages are really hard to put together. Let’s do it one piece of legislation at a time, and I hope that they’ll start with the proposals that I put forward.
Well, I think that we certainly should investigate the dominant platforms to see if they’re complying with the antitrust law. So I welcome the Department of Justice’s recent news that they are going to move forward, it looks like, with true antitrust inquiries. I think that’s the right thing to do. I have been very critical of the FTC and how they have handled enforcement of the consent decrees with both Google and Facebook. I think this most recent action with Facebook is really disappointing. I mean, a $5 billion fine really is a speeding ticket for Facebook; no meaningful changes to their business structure, no incentives to change their model—which is basically surveillance of their users and then the sale of their data.
Didn’t they make more than that in stock market gains in the same day?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Because Facebook had shopped that $5 billion figure for months, they were delighted. You know it’s a joke when Facebook and then all of the industry chorus of apologists are all delighted with it, you know? That’s when you know it’s not tough at all.
But they do say this is going to hold Mark Zuckerberg personally accountable, what do you make of that?
What I’ve seen so far from the FTC—first of all, they didn’t even ask to interview Zuckerberg this last time around for their investigation. I mean, not only did they not interview him, they didn’t even ask to interview him. They didn’t interview any of the senior executives. So to me they haven’t shown much will here. The 2012 consent decree could have allowed them to put Mark Zuckerberg on the hook. They just didn’t want to do that. There wasn’t the will for that. Now, that leads me to wonder about the FTC as an agency. Should we be looking at some sort of reform? Or should we reassign their jurisdiction, at least in this area, to an agency or an entity that is better equipped to handle it? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I think we need to ask that. I think we’re probably due to have a discussion about that.
And now I’ll let you get back to monopolies.
There’s no question that Google, Facebook, etc. have enormous market concentration. I mean, that’s just undeniable that they exercise that enormous market concentration in ways that look like it’s anticompetitive, whether that’s buying out competitors, whether that is taking competitors’ data and trying to convert it to their own use, whether that’s disfavoring competitors on their own sites, like Google does fairly routinely. If you care about competition, if you care about free enterprise and if you care about innovation, all of those things are really, really worrisome. So I think we need to look very carefully and see if they are engaging in what, under our laws, is truly anticompetitive conduct. And if so, then they should be penalized.
You made some news ahead of the August recess with your new bill aimed at curbing the internet addiction that all of us have—you’re trying to stop people like me from scrolling eternally. What brought that about?
This goes to my critique and my worry about these dominant platforms, their basic business model, which is really an addiction model. And it’s built on trying to exploit consumers and children in very particular ways. It’s built on taking our data without telling us, selling it—that’s where they make the money—selling it without our consent, and then getting us to spend as much time on their platforms as humanly possible, so that they can extract more stuff from us. And then of course direct ads toward us. That’s the business model.
I have real concerns with that at several points. I’m concerned about the property violations. People’s personal data is their property. So if I choose to share that with Google or Facebook, that’s fine; that’s my choice. But I should have the ability to do that. I should know what they’re trying to take from me, and I should consent to it. So we need to protect privacy. I should know who they’re trying to sell it to, and I should be able to stop that if I don’t consent to it. So we need to give people the right to get their data back, and so I put forward proposals to do that.
And then the addictive aspect. We need to stop these platforms from exploiting children, and I’ve introduced legislation to do that, and then exploiting other consumers—everybody—by using deliberately addictive practices, like infinite scroll. I mean, these are not things that they just sort of bumbled into, these platforms have worked over years with psychologists, with experts in these fields to try and develop techniques that will get people hooked to spend as much time as possible online and on their platform in particular. So what I think we ought to be about is giving control back to consumers, back to parents, back to families. And if I choose to spend my entire day online, that’s fine. That’s my business. If I choose to give my data away, that’s fine. That’s my business. But I’d like to have that choice. I don’t want to have it extracted from me. I don’t want to be manipulated by you without me getting to make a choice in this.