GOP senator introduces bill to combat ‘social media addiction’

Republican Sen. Josh Hawley on Tuesday introduced a new bill aimed at fighting “social media addiction,” an escalation in the vocal tech critic’s wider campaign to impose consequences on Silicon Valley over its dominance in the global economy.

The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act — or the SMART Act — would ban practices frequently employed by top social networking sites to keep users engaged, like YouTube’s “autoplay” feature or Snapchat’s “snapstreaks.” The bill comes as tech giants face mounting scrutiny in Washington over their handling of disinformation, hate speech and user data.

Hawley’s bill would give social media companies three months to eliminate what it deems “practices that exploit human psychology or brain physiology” — autoplay, self-populating feeds and virtual awards linked to constant engagement with the platform. It would also require companies to roll out features that would allow users to set limits on the time they spend in the site or application with notifications showing how much time a user has logged every day.

The bill would also give the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Trade Commission the authority to introduce new rules that could address “unfair or deceptive” practices a social network may introduce in the future.

“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away,” the Missouri Republican said in a news release on Tuesday. “This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies.”

Hawley’s newest legislation comes as lawmakers have grown increasingly alarmed that large tech platforms could be having an outsized influence on politics, privacy and the wider economy. The measure joins a string of bills introduced by Hawley in recent months that target Silicon Valley in recent months.

One recent proposal seeks to make the federal government the arbiter of whether tech companies have treated user content equally and without partisan bias. A negative finding by regulators could expose a platform to legal liability, under the proposal.

Last week, the FTC announced a massive settlement with Facebook concluding the agency’s investigation into the social network’s privacy missteps. The $5 billion fine imposed on Facebook is the largest in FTC history, and it requires the company to make various changes to its board structure in an effort to enhance corporate accountability. But critics say the FTC’s settlement was too light on Facebook considering the circumstances; regulators did not depose CEO Mark Zuckerberg or COO Sheryl Sandberg, and neither executive was held personally liable in the agency’s formal complaint.

Meanwhile the Justice Department has announced a wide-ranging antitrust review into the tech industry. Officials said last week they were interested in Silicon Valley’s power in online retail and social networking, among other areas. The House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust panel is in the midst of a similar probe, and has sharply questioned tech execs over their business practices.

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