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Silicon Valley should take Josh Hawley’s big war on big tech seriously

Facebook’s biggest problem in Washington might not be Elizabeth Warren.

Senator Josh Hawley speaking from one side of a conference table with reporters sitting on the other.
US Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO, right) speaks to members of the media at a hotel in Hong Kong on October 14, 2019.
Mohd Rasfan/AFP/Getty Images

Tech has become one of the major issues of political debate heading into 2020. On the left, Elizabeth Warren has promised to break up big tech companies like Google and Amazon, and in recent weeks, she has publicly clashed with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg over his company’s size and its controversial political ads policies. On the right, President Donald Trump appears determined to make allegations of social media bias one of the tenets of his reelection bid.

But there is another, lesser-known political figure zeroing in on tech, and he was there before a lot of others: Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri. Hawley is looking to make a name for himself on Capitol Hill. And he’s going through Facebook and Google to do it.

And there’s something that sets him apart from his party’s leader: He has more nuance. While some of his points are as polarizing as Trump’s, Hawley has managed to work successfully with Democrats on tech legislation. At a time when Big Tech is becoming an increasingly salient and urgent part of the political and cultural conversation, Hawley’s stance on tech could portend the future of the Republican Party’s approach to Silicon Valley.

The youngest member of the United States Senate at age 39, Hawley was elected in November 2018. He’s had a busy year: The ambitious former Missouri attorney general has introduced and cosponsored multiple pieces of legislation on issues such as data tracking, children’s online privacy, data monetization, alleged social media bias, and tech addiction. He’s also taken a notably aggressive tack when questioning tech executives in congressional hearings. His scrutiny of Silicon Valley comes at a time when reining in Big Tech is becoming increasingly popular politically — meaning that talking about it is a way to get attention in the press.

“Google, YouTube, Facebook — they will do nothing until they are forced to actually behave in a responsible way,” Hawley told Recode in an interview this summer. “In the meantime, they misdirect, they obfuscate, and they sometimes outright lie.”

Senator Josh Hawley, standing with his arms crossed, speaks with reporters.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks with reporters after a vote in the Capitol on September 12, 2019.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

Hawley’s criticisms of Big Tech have sometimes drawn support from his Democratic colleagues, but not all of his efforts are bipartisan. For example, almost everyone has dismissed his proposed bill to combat political bias on social media platforms, which was seemingly inspired by conservatives’ unfounded claims that Facebook, Google, and Twitter censor conservative speech. Democrats, members of Hawley’s own Republican Party, and even the Republican fundraisers who helped support his Senate campaign have all panned the legislation.

But Hawley brushes aside suggestions that moderating his approach to the tech industry might be more effective. He’s got no regrets about calling social media a “parasite” or accusing tech companies of conducting an “assault on free speech” or arguing that tech companies’ claims of innovation are meaningless. His thinking on the tech sector feels almost punitive: He doesn’t just want to rein in Big Tech. He might prefer a world where it doesn’t exist at all.

“They need to do a lot better,” Hawley told Recode, ticking off his grievances on issues such as privacy, content moderation, and ad targeting. “They need to actually respect the rights and the safety of the people who they’re supposedly helping: their customers and consumers.”

Hawley reflects a post-Trump populism within the Republican Party that seems likely to outlast the 45th president. He has positioned himself as a defender of the middle of the country against the supposed “elite” class — a group that once encompassed big banks, academics, and the media, and that now includes Big Tech. In his first speech on the Senate floor, he described the cohort as “the aristocrats of our age.” (Never mind that Hawley attended Stanford and Yale and has picked up millions of dollars in donations from powerful GOP donors.)

Josh Hawley speaks to supporters during a campaign stop.
Republican US Senate candidate Josh Hawley speaks to supporters during a campaign stop in St. Louis, Missouri on November 5, 2018.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

“It is noteworthy that you have a more junior Republican senator who could be the face of the party in the future who is staking out a position of strict scrutiny of the tech sector,” said Bill Kovacic, a former commissioner at the Federal Trade Commission. “This is an issue [Hawley] regards as truly his. He’s not a tourist; he’s a resident in this field.”

Hawley’s positioning on tech is political, professional, and personal

Hawley has built his career with tech in the crosshairs and is obviously well-versed in the arena. Whereas lawmakers sometimes stumble over their talking points on issues they’ve supposedly taken an interest in or have legislation on, that’s not the case with Hawley on tech. He talks fast, tossing out data points off of the top of his head, and seems genuinely motivated to dive into the issues surrounding it.

Soon after he was elected attorney general of Missouri in 2016, he launched investigations, which are still ongoing, into Google and Facebook to explore whether their business practices violated consumer protection or antitrust laws. In a way, Hawley was a pioneer — this September, state attorneys general from across the country launched antitrust investigations of their own into both companies, and while Zuckerberg has only recently become the Democratic Party’s political villain, he and his company have been on Hawley’s radar for years. As a state attorney general, Hawley also investigated data breaches at Uber and Equifax.

The senator says his interest in tech stems from his experience as a former law enforcement official, but that it’s also personal because of his two young sons. He’s particularly passionate about YouTube and kids-related content on the Google-owned platform, which has faced criticism for failing to crack down on exploitative, sexualized, and harmful content related to children and acting carelessly on kids’ privacy and ad targeting. In September, the FTC hit Google with a $170 million fine over YouTube’s children’s privacy violations — but it was a drop in the bucket for the multibillion dollar company.

“I think [tech] is for many, many people a true kitchen-table issue, especially as it relates to their children,” Hawley told Recode.

The senator’s interest in technology as it relates to children is one issue he’s used to build relationships with other members of Congress.

In March, Hawley and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced a bill that would update children’s online privacy rules, including barring internet companies from collecting data on kids without parental consent and giving parents an option to entirely delete their children’s online information. Markey and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) have also signed onto Hawley’s bill to regulate the sale of video game monetization schemes to kids, and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) cosponsored Hawley’s proposal to let people opt out of data tracking. Hawley has also signed onto Sen. Mark Warner’s (D-VA) DASHBOARD Act that would compel tech companies to disclose how they monetize user data and his ACCESS Act that would require data portability.

Hawley and Blumenthal teamed up to pen a letter to the FTC pressuring it to take “forceful accountability measures” in its Facebook investigation. (The FTC ultimately hit Facebook with a $5 billion fine, but the company emerged largely unscathed.) Hawley, Blumenthal, and Markey sent letters to Facebook, Apple, and Google asking about their data collection practices, and the trio plus Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) wrote a letter to the FTC urging it to avoid weakening protections for kids in its review of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Rule.

“They have actually been very easy to work with,” said one Democratic aide. “He comes into the debate with a pretty clearly established point of view, which is more than his colleagues have.”

Hawley’s interest in tech appears to be more informed than, say, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), whose complaints about alleged social media bias seem almost clownish. In some ways, Hawley is comparable to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has proposed breaking up big tech companies as part of her 2020 presidential bid. (Hawley said he believes breaking up tech “needs to be on the table.”)

But Hawley does not shy away from playing into Republican tropes and hyping up issues he believes will rile up the conservative base. When Hawley appeared at President Trump’s social media summit in July, a gathering of right-wing internet figures and trolls to which the actual social media companies were not invited, he derided the “establishment media, the fake media” for hiding the “truth ... that the social media giants would love to shut us down.” He and Cruz sent a letter to the FTC asking it to investigate how social media companies moderate content on their platforms. Also in July, Hawley raised eyebrows with a speech at the National Conservatism Conference in which he warned against the “cosmopolitan agenda,” which some people read as having anti-Semitic undertones, a suggestion his office firmly denies.

Josh Hawley speaking at a podium with President Donald Trump standing behind him. A giant video screen in the background shows the two men from another angle.
President Donald Trump listens while then Senate candidate from Missouri Josh Hawley speaks at the Veterans of Foreign Wars of the United States National Convention on July 24, 2018, in Kansas City, Missouri.
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Hawley’s proposals have been a “mixed bag,” said Chris Calabrese, vice president of policy at the Center for Data & Technology. He noted that while Hawley launched investigations as attorney general, he never brought a case against Facebook or Google, and said that some of the ideas are not “terribly comprehensive.”

“He’s been really aggressive in his public messaging about the companies, so it can be hard to separate out that from the actual proposals,” Calabrese added, pointing to a USA Today op-ed Hawley wrote in May in which the senator called Facebook an “addictive digital drug that hurts its users” and suggested we would be better off if the platform simply disappeared.

Hawley’s anti-bias ban didn’t go over well. He doesn’t care.

Hawley’s highest-profile move in tech thus far has been his Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act, which he introduced in June. In an attempt to combat widely unproven allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media platforms, the legislation would amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects companies from being held liable for content posted by their users and allows them to moderate the content they host. That law is considered to be a key part of the internet’s foundation.

In Hawley’s view, Section 230 is a “sweetheart deal” from Congress that absolves tech companies of responsibility for the content users post on their platforms and how they police that content. His bill would require companies to prove to the FTC every two years that they aren’t politically biased in order to receive Section 230 protections.

Hawley’s legislation, which has zero cosponsors, has gone nowhere in Congress. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), one of the architects of Section 230, slammed the bill as one that seeks to “deputize the federal government as the Speech Police in flagrant violation of the First Amendment.”

The Section 230 bill was “one that’s just weird for all of us,” one Democratic aide said, adding that they wonder if it was simply a political ploy. Hawley told Recode: “I’m dead serious about it.”

Senator Josh Hawley speaking from a podium in the US Capitol. Listeners stand beside a large seal of the United States Senate.
Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) speaks during a news conference at the US Capitol on April 2, 2019.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Hawley’s 230 bill has garnered pushback from the right. Americans for Prosperity, the libertarian advocacy group funded by billionaire brothers Charles and the late David Koch, warned that the proposal would undermine a “key protection for digital free speech.” (The Kochs spent $2.1 million on Hawley’s Senate campaign and apparently experienced a bit of buyers’ remorse.) “At a general level, the way in which we think that Sen. Hawley has approached tech policy is that it’s pretty disappointing,” said Jesse Blumenthal, vice president of technology and innovation at Stand Together, a network of Koch-funded nonprofits.

Joshua Wright, a former Republican FTC commissioner, called the concept a “bad idea.”

“If your view is that [tech] is too big, make it smaller. Hawley’s solution is to violate the First Amendment, basically, and control speech,” one Hill aide said of the legislation.

The senator has largely dismissed the criticism. In our interview, he said he believed the bill has “galvanized the discussion” on Section 230 and spurred other lawmakers to discuss the matter more openly, though they have not signed onto his proposal. “I’ve said to people, ‘Look, if you don’t like our particular mechanism of doing it, come forward with your own,’” he said. And his office points out that President Trump at the White House social media summit said Hawley’s legislation was “important.”

There is no widespread evidence of mass anti-conservative bias in tech algorithms — rather, the bias of the platforms is to promote and surface content that provokes people and encourages engagement. “All of these companies have algorithmic bias, but the bias is not partisan. The bias is toward extremism,” Siva Vaidhyanathan, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia, told Recode. “There’s a bias against boring.”

Hawley listed off a handful of statistics to Recode that he says are evidence of anti-conservative bias. One example was an audit of Google’s news algorithm that shows left-leaning outlets get more article impressions (largely because they produce more articles). Another was an instance when Twitter temporarily blocked an ad from a Republican senator referencing “baby body parts.” (After backlash, Twitter reversed its decision on banning the ad for being “inflammatory,” saying that it had decided it would allow it “in the context of the entire message.”)

But he says he’s also concerned social media might censor content in the future. He pointed to Google’s work in China in the past to try to make his point: The company launched a search engine in China in 2006 and agreed to abide by the country’s censorship laws, finally dropping the service in 2010. If Google did that, Hawley’s argument goes, what’s to stop them from doing it again, there or in other geographies? The company reportedly dropped a more recent project to launch a censored search engine project after coming under media scrutiny last year.

“They were quite willing in the Chinese market year upon year to censor on the rankest of ideological bases to promote the most repressive authoritarian regime in the world because they thought it was in their interest,” Hawley said. “So why would we believe anything they say now when they say, ‘Oh, we would never censor based on ideology’?”

Google declined to comment for this story.

Hawley’s argument on the bias front is multi-pronged: It’s happening, but if it’s not it could someday, and since the companies say it’s not let’s make them prove it by having them open up their books for outsiders to look and see.

As to what the criteria would be for evaluating whether there is bias under his bill, Hawley says that social media companies would have to abide by “viewpoint discrimination” standards under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Basically, it’s the idea that the government or a law can’t discriminate against an individual based on their political leanings. This doesn’t apply to private companies, but he seems to want it to. Such a practice would “undermine the platforms’ own First Amendment rights to control the content on their sites,” said Lata Nott, executive director of the First Amendment Center of the Freedom Forum Institute.

FTC commissioners are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate, meaning that under Hawley’s proposal, those who would be deciding whether there’s bias in tech platforms would be approved by the White House. I asked Hawley whether he would have proposed the bill under a Democratic president. He asked me to repeat the question, then responded, “Yeah. Sure.”

It’s possible Hawley hasn’t always anticipated the blowback to his actions, but he also might have foreseen it entirely.

“He’s obviously decided that there is an opening here to be this anti-tech person,” one tech industry insider said.

Hawley’s endeavors have at least caught the tech industry’s attention. During a trip to Capitol Hill in September, Facebook’s Zuckerberg met with Hawley personally, among other lawmakers.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg walking down a hall on Capitol Hill flanked by reporters.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg heads to a meeting with Sen. Josh Hawley to discuss technology regulations and social media issues on September 19, 2019 on Capitol Hill.
Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

And the industry has also pushed back. Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the Internet Association, whose membership includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, Twitter, and Snap, among others, in a statement to Recode said that the internet contributes $17 billion to Hawley’s home state’s economy. “Our concern is that some of the senator’s proposals would jeopardize the real benefits that the internet brings to both Missouri and America,” he said.

Hawley’s stances have also made him some unexpected friends, such as Matt Stoller, a fellow at anti-monopoly advocacy group Open Markets Institute and vocal part of the left. “[Hawley’s approach] is not how I would talk about the world, but it is a coherent belief system and he executed on it,” he said.

Hawley may signal where the Republican Party is going on tech — and the complexities of the broader debate

Hawley certainly isn’t alone in the political sphere in singling out Silicon Valley. Washington appears increasingly eager to bring down the hammer on Big Tech, especially as Americans become more and more skeptical of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. The GOP, which has typically been business-friendly, is no exception, though Hawley would argue that the left is actually more in bed with tech companies.

“It’s a new Republican Party that is a lot more populist, combined with many in the base whipped up by the president who believe there’s algorithmic bias in the inner workings of the internet,” said Bruce Mehlman, a Republican lobbyist.

Hawley has ties to venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who donated to Hawley’s Senate campaign before he launched the Google investigation out of Missouri. Thiel, who sits on Facebook’s board of directors and founded Google competitor Palantir, has vested interests in targeting Google and this summer accused it of having “treasonous” ties to China.

Hawley seems most incensed by Google of all the tech giants. When we spoke this summer, he was coming off of a heated Senate Judiciary Committee hearing with one of the company’s executives. “I have never seen such brazen untruths told before Congress as I have heard from the mouths of these big tech executives, Google really being the worst,” he told Recode.

But Hawley has not minced his words on other tech giants. He spoke out against the FTC’s $5 billion settlement with Facebook and has fiercely criticized it as well. “Facebook has been actively shopping that number for months in the press,” he said. “This basically amounts to non-enforcement.”

Hawley’s position as an anti-tech crusader is getting him attention both inside and outside of his own party, on Capitol Hill, and in the boardroom. He represents a marked shift away from the laissez-faire attitudes that allowed companies such as Facebook, Google, and Amazon to flourish. He’s seen a political opening to attack Big Tech and he’s capitalizing on it.

Silicon Valley should be nervous, not only because of Hawley himself, but because his rise could signal more politicians will emerge with a similar attitude toward Silicon Valley. One tech industry insider put it succinctly: “If you don’t take him seriously or find him to be really smart, you’re not watching the right television show.”

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