Sen. Hawley’s Radical, Paternalistic Plan to Remake the Internet

by on August 1, 2019 · 0 comments

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) recently delivered remarks at the National Conservatism Conference and a Young America’s Foundation conference in which he railed against political and academic elites, arguing that, “the old era is ending and the old ways will not do.” “It’s time that we stood up to big government, to the people in government who think they know better,” Hawley noted at the YAF event. “[W]e are for free competition… we are for the free market.”

That’s all nice-sounding rhetoric but it sure doesn’t seem to match up with Hawley’s recent essays and policy proposals, which are straight out of the old era’s elitist and highly paternalistic Washington-Knows-Best playbook. Specifically, Hawley has called for a top-down, technocratic regulatory regime for the Internet and the digital economy more generally. Hawley has repeatedly made claims that digital technology companies have gotten a sweetheart deal from government and they they have censored conservative voices. That’s utter nonsense, but those arguments have driven his increasingly fanatic rhetoric and command-and-control policy proposals. If he succeeds in his plan to empower unelected bureaucrats inside the Beltway to reshape the Internet, it will destroy one of the greatest American success stories in recent memory. It’s hard to understand how that could be labelled “conservative” in any sense of the word.

I’ve been tracking Sen. Hawley’s increasingly radical plans for the digital economy in a series of essays, including:

In these articles, I have documented how Sen. Hawley has been whipping up a panic about digital technology companies and social media platforms to soften to ground for massive intervention by DC elites. Consider his hotly-worded USA Today op-ed from May in which he argued that, “social media wastes our time and resources,” and is “a field of little productive value” that have only “given us an addiction economy.” Sen. Hawley refers to sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter as “parasites” and blames them for a litany of social problems (including an unproven link to increased suicide). He has even suggested that, “we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared” and seems to hope the same for other sites.

More insultingly, he has argued that the entire digital economy was basically one giant mistake. He says that America’s recent focus on growing the Internet and information technology sectors has “encouraged a generation of our brightest engineers to enter a field of little productive value,” which he regards as “an opportunity missed for the nation.” “What marvels might these bright minds have produced,” Hawley asks, “had they been oriented toward the common good?”

Again, this isn’t the sort of rhetoric that conservatives are usually known for. This is elitist, paternalistic tripe that we usually hear from market-hating neo-Marxists. It takes a lot of hubris for Sen. Hawley to suggest that he knows best which professions or sectors are in “the common good.” As I responded in one of my essays:

Had some benevolent philosopher kings in Washington stopped the digital economy from developing over the past quarter century, would all those tech workers really have chosen more noble-minded and worthwhile professions? Could he or others in Congress really have had the foresight to steer us in a better direction?

Why would Sen. Hawley think DC elites could do a better job centrally planning the economy? He doesn’t really tell us, instead preferring to fall back on conspiratorial rhetoric about evil “Big Tech” companies “censoring” conservatives voices. That’s the same card he played when he joined President Trump at the White House for the surreal, rambling “Social Media Summit” that took place last month. Trump used the same approach that Sen. Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) have been using during recently Senate Judiciary Committee hearings: brow-beat witnesses and make wild claims about the whole digital world being out to muzzle conservative voices. As Andrea O’Sullivan and I noted in our essay about the Social Media Summit:

The President and other conservatives are tapping another approach: indirect censorship through both subtle and direct threats. This is an old playbook that goes by many different names: “jawboning,” “administrative arm-twisting,” “agency threats,” and “regulation by raised eyebrow.” These were the names given to broadcast-era efforts to pressure old radio and TV outlets to bring their programming choices in line with the desires of politicians and bureaucrats.

This is an old DC playbook that elites have used for decades to “work the refs” and try to extract promises from various parties under threat of more far-reaching regulation if they fail to comply with the demands of politicians. Again, there’s nothing remotely “conservative” about it.

Brushing aside such concerns, Sen. Hawley has started sketching out what a comprehensive regulatory regime for the Internet and social media might look like. He does so in two new bills, the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” (co-sponsored by Sen. Cruz) and the “Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act.” These two measures, if implemented, would radically remake the digital economy and lead to a remarkably intrusive regulatory regime for online speech and commerce.

The ridiculously named “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act” would actually encourage the exact opposite result than its title suggests. The proposal would mandate that regulators at the Federal Trade Commission evaluate whether platforms have engaged in “politically biased moderation,” which is defined as moderation practices that are supposedly, “designed to negatively affect” or those that “disproportionately [restrict] or promote access to … a political party, political candidate, or political viewpoint.” Social media providers would need to petition the FTC for “immunity certifications” to then get regular audits to ensure they are moderating content in a government-approved manner. If they didn’t, they would lose their platform liability protections, which could effectively run them out of business.

This is permission slip-based regulation and it makes the old Federal Communications Commission licensing regime for broadcast radio and television look like child’s play by comparison. Hawley’s “Mother, May I?” licensing scheme for the Net would have unelected FTC bureaucrats make speech decisions for the entire Internet. It’s a massive First Amendment violation, and it would almost certainly face constitutional challenge if implemented.

What makes this all the more shocking, as I noted in response, this measure combines core elements of the old Fairness Doctrine as well as “net neutrality” mandates that conservatives have traditionally decried. The bill would also empower insider-the-Beltway lawyers, lobbyists, and consultants, who would be needed to navigate the maze of red tape this measure would give rise to. Worst of all, the measure is a massive gift to the trial lawyers Republicans love to hate because Hawley’s new regulatory regime would empower them to file an endless string of frivolous suits aimed at simply shaking down companies through early settlements. Again, how is this “conservative”?

Then there’s Hawley’s new “SMART Act,” which as Andrea O’Sullivan and I argue in our latest essay is really quite stupid. The highly technocratic measure lists a variety of business practices that would be automatically verboten. As Andrea and I summarize:

On the chopping block are infinite scrolling, video autoplay, and “gamification” features like offering badges or streaks for accomplishing certain feats. The bill would also require that social media companies build default time limits and pop-up notifications telling users how long they’ve been on a platform within six months of the bill passing. Weirdly, the bill specifies a time limit of 30 minutes on all social media platforms on all devices per day, after which point they will be locked out. The user would be able to raise that limit through platform settings, but it would reset to 30 minutes at the beginning of each month.

Who would have ever thought we now be living in a world where conservatives are calling for paternalistic, Washington-knows-best nannyism that lets agency bureaucrats forcibly shut down your social media access each day after just 30 minutes of use? Hell, why stop there? Perhaps Sen. Hawley could next impose daily limits how many Netflix shows we stream, how many podcasts we listen to, or how much time we spend playing video games. After all, he clearly thinks he knows what is in our own best interest.

No matter how much Sen. Hawley rails against elites and big government, what he has been saying and proposing represent elitism and regulatory paternalism of the very highest order. He may say that “the old era is ending and the old ways will not do” in his speeches, but through his actions he has whole-hardheartedly embraced the old order. And while he can mouth lines about how “it’s time that we stood up to big government, to the people in government who think they know better,” and while he might claim that he is “for free competition [and] the free market,” in reality, Sen. Hawley has become the most aggressive Republican booster of Big Government and managed markets that I have seen in my 30 years covering technology policy.

Hopefully, the real conservatives left out there will make a stand against Sen. Hawley’s abominable corruption of their movement and ideals.

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