Lawmakers are crusading against big tech in bill after bill, and none seemingly more so than Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo.
At age 39, Hawley is the youngest senator in Congress, and he’s the author of numerous bills that aim to loosen large technology platforms’ grip on power.
The most recent bill, called the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act, was announced Tuesday and aims to ban social media platforms from employing what Hawley calls “addictive and deceptive techniques” that exploit human psychology.
Think infinite scroll news feed environments and autoplay video (although the bill makes an exception for autoplay music streaming platforms).
Large tech platforms, such as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, et al., keep tabs on all the mindless engagement they generate with these sorts of features and then “immediately sell that attention to advertisers,” Hawley stated on his website.
Removing infinite scroll out of Facebook or YouTube’s design arsenal would be a major blow. You could argue that infinite scroll is a big part of what led to the wild money-making success of Facebook’s news feed.
The bill would also require social media companies to provide an in-app tool that lets users track and cap their time spent across devices and would prohibit manipulating people into consenting to things by making it difficult to decline.
It’s unlikely a bill like this will pass, but it underscores the bull's-eye that big tech has on its back in DC in the long march toward a potential federal privacy law.
Here’s a rundown of the other high-profile anti-big tech bills brewing in Congress right now.
Cut from the same cloth as Hawley’s newly-announced SMART Act, the DETOUR Act, sponsored by Sens. Mark Warner, D-Va., and Deb Fischer, R-Neb., would prevent large internet companies from using deceptive design practices known as “dark patterns” that trick users into sharing their data.
“Our goal is simple,” Warner stated in April, “to instill a little transparency in what remains a very opaque market and ensure that consumers are able to make more informed choices about how and when to share their personal information.”
Do Not Track Act (Hawley edition)
In late May, Hawley advanced a bill that would codify Do Not Track into law. The Do Not Track initiative pretty much fell apart after the tech and ad industry lobby had its way with it a few years ago.
Although millions of people actually have Do Not Track enabled today, companies aren’t required to comply. Hawley’s Do Not Track Act would give DNT the gravitas it was missing the first time around by making it illegal for companies to profile anyone who activates the feature.
This one, which hit in mid-June, is Hawley’s attempt to update the way big tech companies are treated under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online platforms from liability for user-generated content.
Basically, that means Facebook and YouTube and the rest of its large platform cohorts would be legally responsible for the content that their users post – although the bill would allow companies to sidestep that responsibility by submitting to an external audit by the Federal Trade Commission to prove their algorithms and content-removal practices are “politically neutral.”
Hawley and Warner proposed the DASHBOARD Act (lawmakers love their initialisms) in late June, which would require large tech companies to publicly disclose what data they collect, how they collect it and what its commercial value is.
If passed, the law would apply to so-called “commercial data operates,” aka, companies that provide online consumer services and have 100 million monthly active users or more.
The disclosure requirement applies to any data that is/was used for a purpose other than for which it was originally collected, which has a whiff of the General Data Protection Act about it.
“Tech companies do their best to hide how much consumer data is worth and to whom it is sold,” Hawley said in a statement at the time. “This bipartisan legislation gives consumers control of their data and will show them how much these ‘free’ services actually cost.”