Government & Politics

Josh Hawley is the center of attention, but will any of his tech bills become law?

Sen. Josh Hawley has relished his role as the tech industry’s chief antagonist on Capitol Hill, but whether Hawley’s bills are political theater or serious policy goals depends on who you ask.

Hawley said the backlash to his proposals to combat social media addiction and prevent bias against conservatives by tech platforms are proof he’s having an impact. Even as he’s faced a wave of criticism, he’s found favor with President Donald Trump by aggressively attacking Silicon Valley.

“I think you do see a bit of a dam breaking, which is really significant, especially given the vociferous industry opposition and that shows you — I mean, they have spent so much money, trying to protect this sacred thing to them with no accountability,” Hawley said last week.

The Missouri Republican has rolled out eight tech policy bills in seven months, but despite the onslaught of media attention none of Hawley’s tech bills are on track to become law or even receive a vote at this point.

“Will it move forward? That’s really a question for leadership,” Hawley said. “At this point, no tech bills are moving anywhere. So I hope — there’s so much we could do — and I hope that these bills, I hope all of my legislation moves forward… The leadership is pretty aware of what members’ priorities are.”

Senate Majority Leader’s Mitch McConnell’s office said it could not say what actions legislative committees might take when asked about Hawley’s comment, which comes at a time when McConnell is trying to fend off criticism for holding up election security and other legislation.

Tom Struble, a tech policy analyst at the libertarian-leaning R Street Institute in Washington, said Hawley’s bills should be seen as political messaging rather than serious policy proposals.

“I think he’s getting attention for a lot of things that aren’t going to happen… He has done a good job of raising his own public profile,” Struble said.

“Josh Hawley is to Senate Republicans what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is to House Democrats,” Struble added, comparing Hawley to the freshman New York Democrat who has generated massive media attention but has so far been unable to advance her legislative priorities.

R Street Institute receives contributions from Google, according to the company’s list of organizations to which it provides financial support.

Hawley is quick to point out that he partnered with Democrats on four of the tech bills, but his most controversial bills, including his new proposal to ban YouTube’s autoplay feature and Twitter’s infinite scroll, have been introduced without any co-sponsors.

Hawley says that features such as autoplay, which starts a video as soon as one finishes, foster social media addiction and keep users glued to their screens. The bill would require social media platforms to limit users’ access to 30 minutes a day unless a user takes steps to remove the limit each month.

The reaction to the legislation was predictable. Tech industry groups slammed it as over-regulation, which would be harmful to innovation.

Hawley faced a wave of criticism from both the left and right, but he also received widespread media coverage for the proposal, which would prevent Facebook, YouTube and other sites from operating in their current form.

Tom Rogan, a conservative columnist for The Washington Examiner, said the bill would increase “government control over our daily lives and dynamic businesses. It deserves our common outrage.”

He added, “Even for Hawley, the authoritarianism here is quite stunning.”

Ryan Weber, president of the KC Tech Council, downplayed concerns about the bill and others that have been offered by Hawley at a time when Kansas City is seeking to grow its tech sector.

“I don’t believe that any of us believe that bill is going to see the light of day, but I don’t think there’s any harm in elevating this conversation among tech companies,” Weber said.

The legislation found an admirer in Sen. Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Graham has convened a task force to investigate the tech industry and Hawley’s ideas could find traction.

“He’s very bright and energetic and I think he’s going to help us push the envelope here,” Graham said. “This idea on addiction that he talked about makes sense to me.”

The initial backlash to the bill was nearly identical to what occurred weeks earlier when Hawley unveiled a bill that would strip social media companies of legal protections unless they agree to undergo audits by the Federal Trade Commission to determine whether their content removal processes are politically biased.

The bill would overhaul a 1996 law that shields internet companies from liability for user generated content. Sen. Ron Wyden, the Oregon Democrat who crafted the 1996 law, said Hawley’s bill would deputize the FTC as speech police.

“Sometimes I don’t get the sense that the staffs of these sponsors read the bills,” Wyden quipped.

Hawley’s legislation faced bipartisan condemnation, but the senator was soon invited to speak at a White House summit on social media where Trump, a fierce critic of the tech industry, endorsed the bill.

The freshman GOP senator, who jumped to the Senate after only two years as Missouri attorney general, has been seen as a rising star in the party who could be on a national ticket in the future.

Hawley’s political consultant Brad Todd touted his client as the future of the Republican Party in a piece published by The Federalist in June, which emphasized the 39-year-old Hawley’s youth and his ferocity on the tech issues.

“Hawley, the only senator in his 30s, is wired differently and unafraid to confront the complexity of our societal addiction to technological masters,” Todd wrote. “Reconciling the best interests of society with the ruthless realities of algorithmic crack peddlers will be long-haul work, but Hawley, unlike the septuagenarians in the Senate, has the time, and he has eagerly gotten started.”

Hawley’s crackdown on the tech industry comes at a time when Google is considering building a $600 million data center in Kansas City.

“I would say that it’s a nice development for Google to consider jobs in the middle of the country rather than China, so that’s a plus. But let’s see. Let’s see what happens,” said Hawley, an outspoken critic of Google, when asked about the possibility of a data center in Missouri.

“I would settle for them following the law and being honest and transparent, not deliberately misleading congressional committees,” he added.

Hawley has previously received contributions for both his state and federal campaigns from billionaire Peter Thiel, a prominent Google critic who also co-founded PayPal and was an early investor and board member of Facebook.

Hawley said he has not spoken to Thiel about his legislation.

The Internet Association, a trade group that represents Google and Facebook among other major tech companies, said that the internet-related industries contribute $17 billion annually to the Missouri economy and support 62,800 jobs.

“There are also thousands of small businesses who rely on online platforms to grow and succeed. Our concern is that some of the Senator’s proposals would jeopardize the real benefits that the internet brings to both Missouri and America,” said Michael Beckerman, the Internet Association’s president and CEO.

Hawley’s outspoken criticism of the tech industry has enabled him to appeal to the populist Trump movement, but Struble warned that the strategy could backfire on Hawley in the long-term.

“At a certain point, he either has to follow up some of these crazy proposals or back down,” he said.

Others say Hawley is genuine in his desire to rein in the tech industry for the benefit of consumers.

“The total anger and fear is coming not from the fact that he’s operating in bad faith but that he’s operating in good faith. It’s really scary for these powerful interests in having someone in the Republican Party taking on this concentrated power,” said Matt Stoller, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute who has been impressed with Hawley’s work on technology.

Stoller said Hawley’s bill outlawing infinite scroll and another bill that would require tech companies to disclose how they value user data, which is co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, are policies that federal regulators could enact under their current authority.

“I don’t think it’s intended to be passed… I think it’s intended to say to the regulators go ahead and do this,” he said.

Two of Hawley’s non-tech bills have passed, a measure to prevent police suicide and another aimed at reducing red tape for first responders, but his bills targeting the tech industry are the ones that have captured national attention.

“I promised the people of Missouri when I ran for this job that I would not be a wallflower, that I would not just sit back and that I would not go along with the status quo,” he said.

Struble pointed to a bill Hawley worked on with Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, to update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act as one of the few pieces of Hawley’s tech-related legislation that could actually advance.

Blumenthal has also been working with Struble’s former boss, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, on tech legislation that is more likely to get leadership’s support when it’s unveiled later this year.

Moran and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, have spent more than a year leading a bipartisan working group that’s crafting a data privacy bill for the Senate Commerce Committee. The bill will seek to establish a clear framework of privacy protections for consumers that will supersede a patchwork of state-level law.

The working group sought input from the industry in the course of crafting the legislation, an approach that contrasts sharply with Hawley’s combative strategy on the issue.

Moran said he was only vaguely familiar with Hawley’s various pieces of legislation, but he reasserted his belief that Congress should pass a comprehensive privacy bill that weighs the concerns of all stakeholders.

“We started with the premise that this is an important enough issue that comprehensive and wide-ranging policy needs to be considered and we believe we have the ability to reach some conclusions that would bring us all together that others would find appealing,” Moran said.

“We’ve had lots of hearings with privacy advocates and what you call the industry.”

Hawley said the Senate shouldn’t wait for a comprehensive bill and should move forward now with legislation that has already been introduced.

“I know that some people have been very focused on a comprehensive bill that would sweep in sort of everything. And I think there has been a lot of energy devoted to potentially seeing that through. I don’t know if that will happen or not,” Hawley said.

“My plea would be if a, quote unquote, comprehensive bill is not going to be possible, let’s not do nothing. Let’s break it up into smaller pieces.”

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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