At the core of every policy proposal, whether liberal or conservative, are the same two elements: problems and solutions. Politicians identify a problem (or several problems) and try to think of a successful solution. Agreeing on the problem only gets you halfway — and sometimes full agreement on the problem can lead to a completely ridiculous solution.
Take freshman GOP Sen. Josh Hawley’s latest bill about social media. Plenty of studies suggest social media is bad for us. One such study published just a few days ago in the journal The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health found that social media may harm girls' mental health. Presumably in response to myriad similar concerns, Hawley’s absurdly acronym’ed SMART Act — for social media addiction reduction technology — is designed to “require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation.”
Hawley’s absurdly acronym’ed SMART Act — for social media addiction reduction technology — is designed to “require social media companies to take measures to mitigate the risks of internet addiction and psychological exploitation.”
Among the goals of the bill are the banning of “infinite scroll, auto refill, and badges and awards users get for engagement.” It would also force social media companies to track and report to the user how much time individuals are spending on their social media platforms. The bill also forces users to opt-out of a 30-minute time limit on apps and require the users to do so every month.
This is an appropriate companion to another bill introduced by Hawley, a Missouri Republican, in June, dubbed the Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act (no catchy acronym here), which would force tech companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to prove they are “politically neutral” or face liability for the content posted by users on their platform. As Reason notes, this essentially “would give the government control over online speech” — a scary proposition unless you happen to be a big fan of the government controlling things they have no idea about.
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To Hawley's credit, the SMART Act does accurately identify a problem: screen time is on the rise, everyone is looking down at their damn phones all the time and that’s potentially bad in a number of ways. And there is absolutely value in identifying the problem. But the solution is severely misguided, for several reasons.
First, just like his June proposal, Hawley’s SMART Act puts the onus and responsibility on the government to legislate an area they have no business getting involved in. In countless sessions before Congress, our representatives have proven their near-illiteracy when it comes to tech and social media. Forcing tech companies to impose opt-out-only, 30-minute time limits on use is a step that raises more questions than answers and imposes a government sanction on innovation.
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Further, the bill makes no distinction between children and adults. It makes no distinction between specific platforms. It makes no distinction between those who can practice self-control and those who completely lack it (which, apparently, is a problem for Hawley, if he thinks he can’t limit use on his own). The government can and does discourage the overuse of legal activities — drinking alcohol, for example. Moderation, in everything, is encouraged. But the government doesn’t mandate a maximum bar tab for everyone. It would be foolish and ultimately fruitless. Even if its heart is in the right place, the SMART Act make us less free.
The instinct among those in Congress to regulate, control or outright punish tech companies is sadly bipartisan. And it’s likely only going to get worse.
The instinct among those in Congress to regulate, control or outright punish tech companies is sadly bipartisan. And it’s likely only going to get worse. Social media platforms and search engines have tremendous power in our culture in 2019, and the government sees the power as a threat. For many Democrats, this urge to control tech takes the form of regulating speech — banning individuals who spread hate on the platform. Or it takes the form of punishing tech companies for allowing the spread of “fake news” or trolls who try to influence elections or the electorate. Beto O’Rourke has used his “campaign reset” last week to get creative, using the guise of “gun violence” to regulate social media companies.
Republicans like Hawley seem more focused on different problems, but with similar solutions. Hawley wants less “bias” in the policing of speech — but not necessarily less policing of speech. Republicans want to see less reliance on tech companies that are free to set their own rules and regulations, outside the government purview. They see growing Silicon Valley monopolies as a threat to their ideals and standing in the world.
It's not just the legislative branch either. President Donald Trump's administration is drafting new regulations to be applied by the FCC and FTC in an effort to combat perceived conservative bias from social media platforms. The nebulous plan is "still in the early stages," but is yet another effort by the government to police platforms it should have no real power to oversee.
Ultimately, all of these instincts hurt Americans. Tech platforms should be free to be free — they should provide a platform for all Americans (unless the user is actively inciting violence). And Americans should be free to use them how they want. Would all Twitter users, myself included, benefit from logging off the toxic environment of nonconversation a little more? Absolutely. But that should be incumbent on the individual, and not be subject to the whims of the political party in power at the time.
At 39, Hawley is the youngest member of the Senate. He is a rising GOP star — the prominent Federalist senior editor Mollie Hemingway described him as a possible 2024 presidential candidate to watch on Jamie Weinstein’s podcast recently. The New York Times recently asked if he’s “the future of the GOP.”
If the Republican Party is going in this direction, they might as well just close up shop and merge with the Democrats. Is social media a rising problem in America? Yes. But the solution is not more mindless regulation. The government is coming for your social media. As Americans, we should band together and say: Try to come and take it.