On Tuesday, Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., introduced legislation to regulate social media that is so divorced from any reality of how the technology functions that it reads more like a luddite’s fever dream. The senator’s vendetta against Silicon Valley has prompted this attempt to codify nonsense in the name of combating social media addiction — a problem that scientists have not confirmed exists.
The legislation begins by taking aim at the technology industry for its business model of “captur[ing] as much of [its] users’ attention as possible.” The law would apply to platforms that primarily allow users to create profiles and interact with one another’s content, meaning that Sen. Hawley’s primary target is social media companies. Tellingly, his legislation would not apply to television or other forms of entertainment that share the same goal.
If passed, the bill would ban social media companies from using “infinite scroll or auto refill,” a feature that automatically refreshes content without user prompting. In contrast to pagination (page 1, 2, 3, …), which requires users to click through multiple screens to see further content, infinite scroll allows users to continually scroll up or down to do so, while auto refill refreshes a page from time to time. None of these methods is inherently malicious; each simply allows for a different user experience. Websites with slow-loading content often benefit from pagination, while sites with faster-loading content like Twitter may have reason to prefer infinite scroll. Facebook is an example of a site that uses auto refill. Why the senator thinks it is the government’s job to outlaw such features is uncertain.
Autoplay would also become illegal under Sen. Hawley’s proposal. This feature comes in handy on YouTube and other video websites; when one video ends, another video automatically starts. This is helpful to users when they are watching a series, listening to music through music videos on YouTube, or practicing yoga while watching instructional videos. Oddly, the Hawley legislation exempts cases where a user has made a deliberate playlist, even though an autoplay algorithm leads to the same result. Companies like Netflix can still use autoplay under Hawley’s bill because, unlike YouTube, the content is not generated by users. Finally, the bill exempts platforms whose “predominant purpose” is music streaming, because for some unspecified reason, autoplaying audio is not nefarious but autoplaying user videos is.
The legislation is not just concerned with infinite content, but with small rewards. For instance, it is standard on various game applications that, when a user plays or wins often enough, she can earn various badges. Aside from making the user feel good for a moment, the badges themselves don’t often do much. Yet under Hawley’s bill, these seemingly benign rewards would be illegal if they do not “substantially increase access to new or additional services, content, or functionality.” It is unclear what constitutes “substantial” — is unlocking a new level enough? What about unlocking a new character alteration, such as new hairstyle or outfit?
Importantly, because the standards for this legislation are so broad and arbitrary, it has the potential not only to halt major social media services like Twitter and Facebook, but also dating apps and popular online community sites like Stack Overflow. Many dating apps — a target specified in the legislation’s text — reload matches without user prompts, or will show one match at a time after a user swipes “yes” or “no.” The former would violate the law, and the same may be true for the latter. Similarly, many online community websites would come under attack by the bill. Stack Overflow, for example, is a website that allows those who have learned how to code to create forums, share ideas, ask questions and more. Users can gain badges for simply interacting — badges that arguably do little to improve their user experience but are fun nonetheless. Many other online community sites function similarly. Sen. Hawley’s bill would make much of their activity illegal.
Among the other provisions of the bill are ones requiring covered platforms to “automatically limit the amount of time that a user may spend on those platforms across all devices to 30 minutes a day unless the user elects to adjust or remove the time limit.” Yet various plugins and apps already allow users to do just this. The limit is also required to reset monthly despite user preferences. Why users must be subject not to their own discretion but to federal mandate is a mystery.
Moreover, if a user is logged in to different accounts on his Apple watch, laptop and phone, it would be impossible for the platform to impose such a limit, making this provision unenforceable. If people share accounts — companies with social media profiles on Twitter, for instance, often have multiple communications professionals logged in at the same time — the law would render their time online useless. And seemingly for no reason at all, this specific provision does not apply to direct messaging on platforms or other media comparable to email.
This is a far from exhaustive discussion of the bill’s shortcomings (of which there is no shortage). While senseless and untethered to legitimate goals of technology regulation, this legislation is not the first of its kind. California has passed, and Congress has proposed, ham-handed attempts to regulate social media to various ends. Hawley himself already introduced another egregious piece of social media legislation in June.
In a speech Wednesday, the day after he introduced this legislation, Sen. Hawley announced, “It’s time that we stood up to big government — government that thinks it knows better.” The senator is right. He ought to take his own advice.