Big Tech’s toughest critic in Washington just might be this freshman GOP senator from Missouri

By Mark Sullivan

In the five months Josh Hawley (R-MO) has served in the U.S. Senate, he’s emerged as the smartest guy on his side of the aisle on tech issues. He’s become a burr in the saddle of Big Tech, offering clear, critical views on everything from data privacy to antitrust. We got Hawley on the phone for a quick Q&A on Thursday. Good timing, as the appetite for reining in Big Tech through new regulations has never been greater in Washington.

(The following has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

Fast Company: I’ve been watching the questions that you’ve been posing to tech company representatives at the various hearings and have found it both enlightening and entertaining.

Senator Josh Hawley: Just trying to do my job.

FC: Silicon Valley’s been coming to Washington for a long time, talking at these hearings. What is your impression of the way Silicon Valley talks to Washington these days?

JH: I will say that they, at least the major players, the big tech companies, are omnipresent here in terms of their lobbyists and PR outreach. And obviously they’ve made a number of appearances before congressional committees and I think that they have been, to put it as nicely as I possibly can, less than forthcoming–Google, Facebook, Twitter, in particular come to mind–before committees, including my own committees, including interactions with me, which I don’t take particularly kindly to. And I think, frankly, a lot of members are getting tired of getting the runaround.

FC: Do you feel like they come in with an attitude that Washington doesn’t really understand the business of Silicon Valley?

JH: Yes, I think this is the way that they conduct themselves, and particularly the way they conduct themselves in hearings, you see how they answer questions. I mean, it really is, in many cases an attempt to obfuscate and mislead. They give answers that are perhaps not technically incorrect–although sometimes they are, sometimes they’re just flatly misleading–but often the answers get at a portion of what’s being asked, but they try to convey an impression that is otherwise than the truth, and they’re banking on the fact that the members will probably not know enough to ask a follow-up question or be able to suss out exactly what is misleading and what is not in that answer. In just my five short months in the Senate, I’ve seen that pattern over and over again. And it’s very troubling.

FC: I want to ask you about your recent op-ed in USA Today about Facebook. It sounds like you believe that anything we can do on Facebook, in terms of keeping connected and sharing content, can be done through other channels. Is that the correct read? [From the op-ed: “You don’t go on Facebook to connect with a friend when you can just as easily call him or send her a text on your phone.You don’t log on to find an article you’ve been meaning to read when you could just as easily find it yourself with a different service designed for that purpose, like online search. No, you log on to Facebook to be on Facebook.”]

JH: What I was really saying is have these platforms–being behavioral ad-supported platforms–really added much at all to our social interactions? Have they added much at all to our economy, to our national life in general? I think we should ask that question not as a matter necessarily of government regulation, but just as a matter of social conversation. When they come to Washington, the tech companies always make the argument: “Oh my goodness, we represent the crown jewel of the American economy . . . we represent the future of this country.” I think we should question whether that’s really the case. They always hold out that they are our brightest minds. If that’s the case, is all the innovation that they’re putting into advertising really the great innovation of the 21st century? That’s my point.

FC: We’ve been hearing a lot of conversation about antitrust, I guess maybe starting with Senator [Elizabeth] Warren’s (D-MA) proposals for breaking up big tech companies. But from where I stand, the conversation sounds very unfocused. For example, we hear people talking about breaking off WhatsApp and Instagram from Facebook. Are we trying to break up these companies just because they’re rich and powerful, or is there a more specific goal?

JH: I think we need to be deeply concerned about the level of privacy invasion and violation that we’re seeing from these tech companies. My concern is that it’s baked deeply into their business model of extracting data from consumers without telling them, and then monetizing that data, and then also working to ensure they have very large numbers of people online for large portions of the day so that you can make these ads profitable. I mean, that really is the model for Facebook, for the Google platforms, and for Twitter in many ways.

So I think we need to be asking if that model is really good for society, and are the privacy violations that model depends on in some ways—isn’t it time we did something about that? Should the exploitative and addictive practices that they use be normalized? Should they be able to engage in infinite scroll and other practices borrowed from the gambling world that deliberately attempt to get and keep their users’ attention through manipulative techniques?

Their size exacerbates all of these problems because there really is a lack of real competition. If you don’t want to be on Facebook, where are you going to go if you want to be in a social communication space? Google is much more than a search engine. They are also our news agency, in the sense of the amount of information that that comes to consumers through Google and through Google’s platforms. The anti-competitive behavior that’s been alleged is also cause for concern.

So you have a constellation of issues there . . . we need to think about more than just breaking [tech companies] up or making them smaller or doling them out piece by piece. We also need to think about the underlying model.

FC: Republicans like to talk about this issue of censorship and the idea that Google, Twitter, and Facebook are suppressing conservative viewpoints. I wonder if you are committed to this idea and, and if so, what makes you believe such censorship is really happening?

JH: I’m committed to the facts, and I’d like to have these companies help in getting the facts . . . Look, there’s a lot of anecdotal evidence out there, a lot of circumstantial evidence, as we lawyers like to say, of de-platforming of conservative voices, of targeting of conservatives. Now, the platforms all say, “No, no, no, we’re not doing that; we’re just using our standard protocols.” So my answer has been twofold. Why don’t [the tech platforms] release the protocols that govern their editorial decisions and their speech-related decisions? I think we’d all like to see those. And two, why don’t [they] submit to an independent audit as to how they’re enforcing their protocols? I think those are easy ways to get the facts, to make them public, and to give folks some reassurance. But I think it’s very telling that so far, none of these platforms have been willing to do anything remotely close to that.

FC: Let’s switch to Section 230, which I know you have strong opinions about. Part of the worry about removing the Section 230 protections for tech companies is that they’re shielded from lawsuits over content their users post, but they’re also shielded from lawsuits over harmful content they actively remove in the name of good moderation. Do you worry that more harm than good might come from removing the Section 230 protections?

JH: I think it’s tough to talk about it at that level of generality. More specific to the questions we need to ask is if 230 has permitted these platforms to act as editorial pages but to escape editorial liability. And this gets to the point about how they’re actually making their decisions related to speech. I for one don’t want to see more censorship on the web. I don’t want to see more censorship on social media. My concern is we may have too much already. We may have censorship on what, in the First Amendment context, we call viewpoint discrimination. So what would be good would be to see these companies commit wholeheartedly to First Amendment standards and say, “We’re not going to engage in viewpoint discrimination, we have to moderate content in keeping with 230 as it’s currently written, and we’ll only moderate content in order to ensure that there’s no violence, etc.”

These are standards that are well developed in the First Amendment context. Speech that is violent, that incites violence–that’s not protected by the First Amendment, and I don’t think anybody would expect that the platforms should protect it, either. They should be able to moderate that kind of content. But the real question is, when we talk about viewpoint discrimination, we talk about moderation decisions that are made on the basis of the speech itself, particularly if it is political or ideological speech. That’s where we have an issue, and that’s where 230 comes into play. And I have to say that the companies, it seems to me, want to have it all ways. On one hand they want to say that they’re not traditional publishers and that they don’t really make editorial decisions, and on the other hand they don’t want any of their content moderation decisions to be examined or second-guessed. So which is it? Why don’t you just tell us what your moderation content standards are? Why won’t you submit to outside reviews?

So they’re certainly not going to get my support for having their cake and eating it too–for saying, basically, give us this huge exemption, which is different than any other platform in America, but we want zero scrutiny, and also, by the way, we want to be able to totally dominate the channels of social communication.

FC: Would you feel a little bit better about leaving Section 230 protections the way they are if the social media companies would be very forthcoming about the standards they’re using to make these editorial decisions?

JH: Yeah, I’d feel better about it if they were being transparent about their protocols, if they were willing to submit third-party verification that says, “They’re engaging in content moderation, but it’s not on the basis of a political, ideological viewpoint,” I think that would be a different thing.

The other thing I want to emphasize is anytime we talk about Section 230—anytime we talk about the tech space at all—it’s important that any actions we take be pro-competition and competition-reinforcing. Any action we might take on 230 needs to be sure to allow space for new entrants into the market. I think the worst action Washington could take would be to impose regulation that is more or less designed by the dominant platforms, and that only the dominant platforms can comply with, and therefore, that further squelches competition.

 

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