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Hawley Confident His Skepticism Of Tech Companies Will Gain Congressional Momentum

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley has been an outspoken critic of big technology companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook since he joined the Senate. April 2019
Courtesy of U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley's office
U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley has been an outspoken critic of big technology companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook since he joined the Senate.

There hasn’t been a lot of subtlety about how U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley feels about big technology companies.

Since entering the Senate earlier this year, the Missouri Republican has introduced bills aimed at curtailing video game “loot boxes” and allowing people to opt out of companies tracking their Internet activity. He most recently announced legislation that would bar video-sharing sites like YouTube from recommending videos of minors.

And while the trajectory of the freshman lawmaker’s legislation won’t necessarily be smooth, Hawley noted in an interview with St. Louis Public Radio on Wednesday that some of the ideas he’s supporting are gaining bipartisan favor.

“There’s no doubt that the tech companies are incredibly powerful, and they have incredibly powerful lobbies. And they spend enormous amounts of money and enormous amounts of time trying to sway congressmen and representative senators,” Hawley said. “But I’ll say this: The bipartisan interest in this has been tremendous.”

Parents want action

Hawley’s bill regarding YouTube is in response to a New York Times article that reported how YouTube’s algorithm can recommend home videos of children to users who watched clips of prepubescent, partially clothed children.

Hawley said his office has received a “tremendous response” from parents “who say they can’t believe that YouTube is effectively recommending videos to pedophiles — and has the ability not to do that.” While the legislation would bar video-hosting services from recommending videos that feature minors, those videos could still appear in search results. It would exempt things like prime-time talent shows.

“They can take these videos out of the stream. But they don’t want to do so, because of profits,” Hawley said. “Parents hear that stuff and are like ‘Are you kidding me?’”

While YouTube said after the New York Times article came out that it was making some changes in selecting which videos it recommends, a representative of the company said it would not stop suggesting videos of minors altogether “because recommendations are the biggest traffic driver; removing them would hurt ‘creators’ who rely on those clicks.”

“And they said ‘Well, we don’t want to hurt those who post the videos, these influencers and so forth,’” Hawley said. “I think that’s a pretty thin read on which to rely here when we have seen this reporting and we’ve seen the facts.”

The Times article touched on what’s known as the “rabbit hole effect,” where YouTube users effectively get addicted to more extreme videos or topics. Hawley said he’s concerned about what he sees an “addiction economy” with popular social media outlets that create a psychological bond of sorts between a platform and an internet consumer.

He pointed to studies that show an “alarming correlation between social media use and depression and suicide in teenagers — especially teenage girls.”

“These are addictive, exploitative practices deliberately designed to try to get people, including children, to spend enormous amounts of time on the platform — and also to spend money,” Hawley said. “And this I think is deeply disturbing.”

Where do we go from here?

Whether Hawley’s bills get significant legislative traction is an open question.

Some conservative groups have been critical of efforts to regulate the tech industry, for example, as an infringement upon free market principles. Asked whether his legislation was a priority for GOP leadership that controls the Senate, Hawley replied: “I think it remains to be seen if we will get legislation that protects people’s privacy and that protects children — whether that will actually be brought to the floor.”

Hawley also said that some of the skepticism of big technology companies is gaining favor with high-profile Democrats. He noted that Sen. Dianne Feinstein was a cosponsor of his bill allowing people to opt out of companies tracking their Internet activity — even though the California Democrat represents a number of technology companies in her state.

“That sends a pretty powerful message,” Hawley said. “That this is not only a bipartisan interest and effort, but also that she represents obviously these tech companies as well in the sense that many of them are based in her state.”

It’s not just Feinstein who has shown favor to reigning in technology companies. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who also is from California, recently said the “era of self-regulation is over” for large technology corporations. And presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren called for breaking up giant companies such as Amazon, Apple and Facebook.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum there,” Hawley said. “Now, I hope that leadership in both parties will want to come together and actually get something tangibly done that will protect the privacy of every single Missourian and every single American and will especially protect children.”

“I think the tech companies are really running out of friends,” he added.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.