Josh Hawley Wants To Appoint Himself Product Manager For The Internet
from the hawley-knows-best dept
Say what you want about Senator Josh Hawley — and we’ve said a lot — but you do have to give him credit for actually proposing bills to respond to all of the problems he sees with internet companies these days. Of course, he sees their very existence as one of the problems, so the bills seem mostly nonsensical. His latest — the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (yeah, yeah, the SMART Act) — is only marginally less crazy than his last bill to strip internet companies of Section 230 protections, unless they agree to allow Nazis to speak.
It’s… weird. It basically seems to be Congress (via Hawley) appointing itself as the new product manager for all internet services. It’s taking what is a potentially reasonable concern that certain activities on various internet platforms may lead to addictive behaviors and then assuming that Congress must ban them, outright — as well as take proactive steps to limit access to much of the internet. I’m assuming that noted Constitutional lawyer Josh Hawley will next propose a bill banning alcohol, cigarettes, TV binging, professional sports, books, and anything else engrossing in the future. Again, there are legitimate concerns about how the internet impacts people, but we’re still in the very early days of understanding (1) what those issues are and how they’re dealt with and (2) how society can and should respond to those things. And yet, this bill acts as if it’s well established that a few very specific technology features are de facto evil and must be banned. Among them:
- Infinite scroll
- A lack of natural stopping points
- Autoplay music and video
- Badges that reward certain behavior (i.e., gamification)
First off, I probably agree with many of you in thinking that much of the above list is fucking annoying. I’m annoyed by infinite scroll. It’s why we don’t have it on Techdirt, even though tons of other sites do. But, how in the world does it make sense for Congress to step in and literally make design choices for the entire internet?
Also, autoplay ads are crazy annoy… wait, what’s this?
AUTOPLAY.?The use of a process that automatically plays music or videos (other than advertisements) without an express, separate prompt by the user (such as pushing a button or clicking an icon)
Emphasis very much added. Got that? Autoplay advertisements are exempted. This is basically entirely targeted at YouTube and the fact that when one video finishes, another will start playing automatically. I do find that practice marginally annoying, but there’s a giant switch at the top of the page that lets you turn it off, and once you turn it off once, it stays off, so, uh…? But, really, the exempting of advertising is quite amazing. Apparently Josh Hawley thinks that internet companies are bad for trying to addict you, but advertisers? Oh, no. They’re pure as the driven snow…
If I’m reading this correctly, it could ban Techdirt’s existing commenting feature in which we put badges on comments that have been voted “funny” or “insightful” by the community. Because that’s evil. How dare we incentivize our commenters to be funny or insightful! An outrage! Here’s the language in the bill:
BADGES AND OTHER AWARDS LINKED TO ENGAGEMENT WITH THE PLATFORM.?Providing a user with an award for engaging with the social media platform (such as a badge or other recognition of a user?s level of engagement with the platform) if such award does not substantially increase access to new or additional services, content, or functionality.
That is listed under “Prohibited Practices,” though it’s possible we might skate by, as we may not qualify as a “social media service” under the bill (it defines social media services as sites that “primarily serve as a medium for users to interact with content generated by other third-party users”). I’d argue that’s not our “primary” business right now, but it’s at least a bit fuzzy — especially as we’re, at this very moment, thinking about ways to improve our commenting features, and if this became law, we’d have to be very concerned that at some point we’d accidentally cross the nebulous border into a realm in which our “primary” business involved hosting user comments. Given that, it would certainly create a massive chilling effect on the features we’re already working on implementing for you guys.
Of course, that’s only if this bill had half a chance in hell of becoming law and not being tossed out as unconstitutional.
The bill also requires any “social media company” to add a bunch of features. Again, some of these features are probably good ideas, just not good ideas that should be required by law. Among the mandated features: a tool that users can use to set time limits on the platform, an opt-out rule that, by default, limits the use of any services to 30 minutes per day, and a regular counter of how much time you’ve spent on the site. So, if we were deemed to be “primarily” in the social media business, and you’re reading Techdirt for more than 30 minutes, sorry folks, but I’ll need to cut you off (and re-set the limit on the first of every month, even if you opt out). Yes, that’s right — even if people opt out of the 30 minute limit, this bill would require it be turned back on, on the 1st of every month. So paternalistic. And, apparently, I’ll magically have to build such tools into my site.
Remember, of course, that Josh Hawley’s major claim to fame was that he was the lawyer that represented Hobby Lobby in allowing it to ignore federal laws that it felt violated the religious sensibilities of its owners. I wonder, if we start a religion that worships the infinite scroll and gamification badges, will Hawley let us have an exemption from this law?
Believe it or not, there’s even more in the bill, including requiring websites to have a “neutral presentation,” banning “pre-selected” options, and having the FTC report to Congress about how internet companies are “exploiting human psychology.”
There may be bad things about how internet platforms are run. There may be problems with certain implementations and the impact they have on society, but a blanket ban on stuff, just because Hawley has decided it’s bad, seems kinda crazy. Whatever happened to the Republican party position of getting government out of regulating businesses? This is not just regulating businesses, it’s literally getting down to the product/feature decision level for no obvious reason other than Hawley’s personal animus.