'Should these platforms exist at all?': One GOP senator's crusade to rein in — and rethink — big tech

Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, the chamber's youngest lawmaker, says breaking up the giants might not be enough.
Image: Josh Hawley
Missouri Senate candidate Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) talks to the media after a debate against incumbent Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill Ton Oct. 25, 2018, in Kansas City, Missouri.Charlie Riedel / AP file

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By Allan Smith

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has more than a little in common with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., one of the body's most liberal members, when it comes to addressing the size and power of social media and tech giants.

But Hawley also posed a more existential question about advertising-based tech companies during a recent interview with NBC News: "Should these platforms exist at all?"

Like Warren, Hawley views the major companies as near monopolies and is open to the idea of using federal antitrust enforcement tools against them — but he told NBC News that Warren's plan to break up Facebook, Google and Amazon might not go far enough in addressing the threat he thinks they pose to society.

"We should have a discussion about the business model of the social media platforms as they have evolved as an ad-supported business model that is pushing addiction and rewarding addiction," Hawley said.

"If we broke Facebook up into 50 Facebooks who all pursued the same business model, would our lives, our economy, our society be measurably improved?" he continued. "I don't know that they would."

Hawley's comments echo what some tech insiders and media experts have said in recent years: Some of the internet's biggest problems begin with the ad-based business model.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube "hold themselves out to their users as being free, but they're not free and they're not free at all," Hawley said. "I mean they depend on collecting personal, private, confidential information from their users without consent, on monetizing it without permission and then trying to get their users, frankly, addicted to their platforms so they can assure a sufficient base of customers to sell their ads."

At 39, Hawley, a former Missouri attorney general, is the youngest member of the Senate — a legislative body where the average age is about 60. He was in his 20s when Google, Facebook and Twitter first took off.

His familiarity has bred personal wariness of the platforms, he said. He tries to ensure his two young children barely have any screen time — and certainly no exposure to the social media platforms. He will occasionally use Twitter but says he "frankly never" reads it. For Facebook, Hawley said he doesn't have the app on his phone and he stays "off of that platform."

The generational gap with his colleagues, he acknowledged, can be significant when it comes to tech issues. Most of his colleagues "certainly didn't grow up with these platforms and these technologies, and many of them don't really use them personally and so aren't that familiar with them."

So far, he's introduced legislation that would give consumers greater power to prevent companies from harvesting their data. Another bill he introduced, The Washington Post reported, would prohibit games that target kids under 18 from selling virtual "loot boxes" and ban "pay to win" scenarios, in which users are offered the ability to pay to make the game easier, unlock additional content or gain a leg up. He's also talked about the idea of changing the protections social media companies have under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which prevents those companies from being held liable for any content a third-party user posts on their platforms.

Like many Republicans, Hawley has taken issue with Facebook and Twitter suspending or banning voices on the right over violations of their terms of service for things like hate speech and targeted harassment, zeroing in on Section 230 as a potential response. Many of these instances have prompted a backlash on the right, claiming that the platforms are anti-free speech and simply trying to stifle viewpoints they disagree with.

"I mean the answer is just pretty simple: Just don't do that," Hawley said. "You don't have to promote any particular side but don't engage in viewpoint discrimination, and if they're going to then they should be treated like a normal publisher."

Critics of Hawley's ideas said that if those Section 230 protections for digital platforms change, the internet "would probably be decimated overnight" and that changes to the law could create the opposite effect, causing platforms to purge many more users.

Hawley, who draws inspiration from Teddy Roosevelt (he wrote a biography of the famous trust-buster a decade ago) and the conservative populism espoused by President Donald Trump, knows that his push for active government in issues involving tech is a split from longstanding conservative ideology.

The question of how the government should be involved is less about it being "active" or "inactive," but "about the end stage," he said.

"Because let's face it, government is constantly influencing ... how the economy functions," he said. "We need to be influencing it in a way that we're actually rewarding work, we're creating opportunities for people in the middle of our society who, you know, they don't want to start a tech company, they would just like to work in the family business and they'd also like to be able to support their family doing that."