Josh Hawley's SMART Act Is So Goddamn Dumb
Missouri's new Republican Senator Josh Hawley is the dashing, baby-faced freshman who thinks he's got big tech all figured out. He keeps introducing bills aimed at slapping tech companies who've become too big for their bits. The only problem -- and really, it's so minor! -- is that Hawley is a fucking idiot who doesn't have a clue what he's talking about.
As the rest of Congress is getting ready to bugger off for a month, Hawley quietly dropped a bill that would turn Uncle Sam into a social media nanny. Called the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act (SMART), Hawley's bill would force social media platforms to limit the amount of time people spend dicking around on their platforms each day. Hawley's bill would also force social media companies to kill off trademark features like autoplay and infinite scrolling, and similarly ban systems that reward users for their engagement, like Snapchat streak trophies.
This is Hawley's dumbass bill.
Hawley's bill has some other odd parts in it too, like making social media companies create a "user-friendly interface" that would allow you to set your own time limits, and monitor how much time you've spent on other social media platforms. The wording on this is rather vague and makes about as much sense as anonymous dick pics: It's there, even if nobody asked for it.
Perhaps the only thing in this bill that isn't completely fucked is a requirement that the FTC produce a report every three years on the "issue of Internet addiction" that explores the ways social media companies masturbate our brains and "interfere with free choices of individuals." However, the FTC doesn't have the best track record of holding companies accountable as they slapped Facebook on the wrist for sucking up insane amounts of user data (and absolved them of any wrongdoing for Cambridge Analytica!), and now the FTC is walking back payouts to the hundreds of millions of victims of the Equifax breach.
At first glance Hawley's bill doesn't seem like a terrible idea -- it puts social media addiction into the public debate. Mark Zuckerberg would have to fess up to brainwashing people. @Jack Dorsey would have to tinker with ways to make Twitter shittier. There would be a reduction in the amount of ugly baby pictures and racist relatives shitposting that drown our feeds. Children (and idiots who act like children) would no longer spend hours trying to get "badges" by documenting every aspect of their lives for trolls, bots, and 400 lb. hackers sitting on their beds.
The most obvious problem here is that endless scrolling/autoplay features are a core part of the social media business model. It's certainly not a good thing that people spend hours yelling into the ether, but imposing obnoxious time limits is likely to cause social media companies to search for new ways to milk users for money. Social media companies rely on ad sales to keep the lights on, and it's far easier to insert those ads in social feeds as people scroll through shitposts while avoiding work or pooping. Taking away that core financial model will arguably force social media companies to consolidate their business around MORE user engagement, not less.
What's more, Hawley's bill is unnecessarily broad, as The Verge's Adi Robertson points out, since it would affect ANY website with user generated content. We don't know if that includes comment sections, message boards, people who produce cooking videos, or mommy blogs that make dick jokes. Casey Newton suspects Hawley's bill could be a hat tip to television companies who can't keep people glued to the boob tube, and wonders if this is all an act.
Hawley has made a name for himself by being the whippersnapper Republicans call to fix their VCRs and yell at tech executives. Recently Hawley called social media a "parasite on productive investment" and questioned whether or not social media should exist at all. Hawley continually rails about the censorship of conservatives on social media, but leaves out that conservative speech actually thrives on social media. Hell, the president is a social media celebrity and says racist things that violate Twitter's rules every day, but he hasn't been banned.
Hawley put himself on the radar of geeks earlier this year when he proposed altering Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. In so many words, §.230 says media companies aren't responsible for the crap users post in the comments; it's also part of the reason why Twitter has a Nazi problem. Hawley's bill proposed that the statute protecting social media companies, newspapers, and mommy blogs from frivolous lawsuits should be stripped if they show political bias in their banning of speech (like banning a conservative troll shitposting in our comments). The bill hasn't gone anywhere since being introduced in June, and was widely panned by media critics, swamp monsters, and geeks for being a hot fucking mess that would break the First Amendment.
Social media companies aren't great. Twitter is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and Facebook is everything George Orwell warned us about, but Josh Hawley is not the person who should be leading the fight against big tech. He's the inevitable mansplaining troll who pops up to say, "ACTUALLY." Hawley doesn't want to break up big tech, call Nazis domestic terrorists, or champion free speech, he's the guy who wants to help the Nazis take over the Weimar Republic by giving the government control over newspapers. It's why he keeps appearing on Tucker Carlson.
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