In a scathing letter to Facebook this month, Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, along with three of his Republican colleagues, renewed his criticism of the social media giant, saying the company censors conservative voices.
It’s Hawley’s latest call for more government scrutiny and regulation of tech companies stemming from concerns like data privacy, internet addiction and censorship.
And while a political science professor notes that Hawley’s zeal for going after social media wasn’t a central part of his campaign in 2018 and some Republican voters aren’t sure the government should have a major role in regulating these companies, his constituents still support his efforts and generally like what he’s doing in Washington.
In the past four years, Americans’ attitudes are increasingly negative when it comes to the effect of technology, according to polling by the Pew Research Center. One in three Americans now say tech companies are not helping the country.
In an interview with KCUR, Hawley said his focus on tech companies came from what he heard from parents.
“They're so worried about what their kids are exposed to online, but they're also worried about these tech companies tracking their kids online and building a profile of their kids online that's going to follow them all of their lives,” he said. “And parents increasingly feel like they don't have any control.”
Hawley, a father to 4-year-old and 6-year-old boys, said he thinks about this issue every day.
“We strictly limit their screen time and, as every parent knows, it is a challenge. I mean, we are surrounded as parents by screens, by devices,” Hawley said.
Since taking office in January, he’s introduced a bill that would automatically limit your time on a social media site like Facebook to 30 minutes a day, although a user could get rid of this time limit. Another bill would create a program to download on your computer to stop companies from collecting personal data.
The time-limit bill appeals to Kathy Beckner of Lexington, Missouri, which is where Hawley grew up. She home-schools her granddaughter and worries about the time she spends online.
“I'm very careful when [my granddaughter] gets on the computer about what she turns on,” Beckner said.
Bill Kartsonis, a member of the state’s GOP committee, said he likes what Hawley has prioritized so far and thinks “he’s doing an excellent job.”
“There's a lack of trust for some of these technology companies,” Kartsonis said. “And with things that move so rapidly, like telecommunications and technology, Congress cannot just modify the rules once every 20 or 30 years. They need to hold extensive hearings, and look at some elements every year.”
Republicans generally are reluctant to impose regulations on private companies but there is a strong interest to protect data and privacy. That’s created disagreements within the party for how to address the power of tech companies, according to University of Missouri political science professor Peverill Squire.
When Hawley proposed holding large tech companies liable for user-posted content, conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity called the legislation “misguided.” It's important to note that part of the bill addressed the issue of censorship of conservative viewpoints by requiring companies to show their content removal process in order to be immune from lawsuits.
Steven Seitz said while he’s concerned about social media addiction, but he thinks having the government set a daily limit is an overreach.
“I don't care for people spending time on social media,” said Seitz, a truck driver in Wellington who voted for Hawley. “I don't think it's the government's place to say that you're limited on that time. I don't agree with that.”
On the campaign trail, Hawley focused on attacking former Sen. Claire McCaskill’s record and talking about the confirmation of then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. Hawley’s campaign website mentioned his investigation into Google’s handling of user data as state attorney general.
Squire said Hawley’s work as attorney general gave an indication that he would focus on this topic, but that tech companies weren’t a major talking point.
“It's not something that certainly was central to his campaign,” Squire said. “It's not an issue that Missourians really have paid close attention to. It's not something that we've really seen contested in any race up and down the ticket.”
And Squire said the debate about the role of government in regulating tech companies might not seem as pressing to voters.
“There are certainly millions of Missourians who use various social media platforms. And they are of course concerned when there are questions raised about privacy and the use of their personal data,” Squire said. “But it's still a little distant from daily life.”
For his part, Hawley said he ran on his record.
“I sharply criticized my former opponent for not being tough enough, on big corporations in general, and particularly on big tech,” Hawley said.
And while he’s gotten more attention from national outlets for taking on tech companies — as well as speaking at President Donald Trump’s social media summit in July — he’s also introduced bills on issues like student loans and flooding.
Regina Stickley doesn’t follow politics closely and mainly voted for Hawley because she didn’t like McCaskill. She likes that he’s taking on big tech, but is skeptical that Congress will pass any of his tech bills.
“I hope he has a blessed time trying to get this stuff done,” said Stickley, who also lives in Lexington. “Sounds like he's gonna need some prayers on some.”
So far, none of the tech bills he’s sponsored have made it to the Senate floor for a vote.
Aviva Okeson-Haberman is the Missouri government and politics reporter at KCUR 89.3. Follow her on Twitter: @avivaokeson.