Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., intends to make his focus in the current Congress a legislative package aimed at protecting children online — including by setting the age threshold to be on social media at 16.
In an interview with NBC News, Hawley detailed some top lines of what his agenda will include, such as:
- Mandating social media companies verify the age of their users.
- Providing parents a right to demand that tech companies delete their kids' data.
- Commissioning a wide-ranging congressional mental-health study on the impact social media has on children.
"For me, this is about protecting kids, protecting their mental health, protecting their safety," Hawley said. "There's ample evidence to this effect that big tech companies put their profits ahead of protecting kids online."
Since his election to the Senate in 2018, Hawley has made scrutinizing the tech industry core to his political brand and has pushed for breaking up the tech giants and curtailing the reach of TikTok.
Those efforts were hamstrung after Hawley drew bipartisan outrage over his infamous photo ahead of the Jan. 6 riot and his formal objection to state election results. But since then, he has nevertheless advanced legislation with Democrats about tech and China. His efforts have also often run counter to more traditional conservative economic theory but have gained traction among segments of the right dismayed by the industry's broad influence and perceived anti-conservative bias.
Hawley surmised that over the last decade, tech companies have conducted "a giant social experiment involving our kids, where big tech makes gobs of money, collects gobs of data, which they then sell and make even more money on."
"And kids get hurt in the process," he added. "And so the whole aim of this agenda is: Let's do something real and tangible, that is going to protect kids online and get power back to parents."
Hawley will release individual pieces of legislation in the coming months and expressed hope that his effort could draw bipartisan interest in the divided Congress.
"I’ve had a lot of conversations with Democrats across the aisle and over the years about this topic generally and about different pieces of this," Hawley said. "I don’t see this as a partisan issue. I mean, this is about protecting kids from the irresponsible and rapacious big tech companies. Every parent in America, whatever your political persuasion, or if you have none, can agree with that."
Hawley's announcement came hours before the State of the Union address Tuesday night, during which President Joe Biden was expected to call for enhanced data privacy online and a bipartisan effort to ban advertising targeted at youths, among other measures.
"We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are running on our children for profit," Biden wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, adding: "There will be many policy issues we disagree on in the new Congress, but bipartisan proposals to protect our privacy and our children; to prevent discrimination, sexual exploitation, and cyberstalking; and to tackle anticompetitive conduct shouldn’t separate us."
Late last year, Biden signed legislation spearheaded by Hawley that banned the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok from most government devices. That legislative push came as the company's ties to China are under increased scrutiny in Congress.
Hawley seeks to further that effort, announcing plans late last month to introduce legislation banning TikTok throughout the U.S.
Democrats have also called for TikTok to be limited, with Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado telling The New York Times this month that Apple and Google should remove TikTok from their app stores over national security concerns.
As for his upcoming legislative effort aimed at safeguarding kids online, Hawley, the parent of three young children, said, "I don’t want to do stuff that is that is just sort of symbolic."
"We are looking for ways to give parents and kids, where appropriate, actual legal rights where they can force the companies to do XYZ or go to court," he said. "So I think that giving real legal power, shifting the power from the tech companies to parents and kids through enforceable rights, including rights of action in court, I think is a key thing here."