Social Media

Josh Hawley Wants to Ban YouTube's Autoplay Feature in the Name of Fighting Social Media Addiction

The Missouri senator thinks wasting time on Instagram is a problem so big that only the federal government can solve it.

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America faces some big problems, from endless wars to congressional dysfunction to police abuse to the spiraling cost of health care, housing, and education. Now Josh Hawley, from his perch in the United States Senate, has decided to focus his precious attention on a problem that only the power of the federal government can solve: YouTube's autoplay feature. No, I am not kidding. 

Today the Missouri Republican introduced a bill that would ban the feature in the name of fighting social media "addiction." The bill, which Hawley has dubbed the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology—or SMART—Act, would also outlaw such features as infinite scroll and Snapchat's "streaks," which encourage users to engage in unbroken communications with friends. The bill would additionally require social media companies to install time-use dashboards, and it would give the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Department of Health and Human Services the power to regulate other features in the future. 

Even for Hawley, who has spent his short time in Congress pushing bills that would give the federal government more power to regulate large tech companies, this is remarkably petty. Hawley appears to believe wasting time on Facebook and Instagram is a problem so big it requires the federal government to solve.

You might not be a fan of social media (I certainly have my qualms), but it seems hard to view this as anything but a wild misuse of federal power—and potentially far more sweeping than the bill initially sounds. Hawley is proposing to empower federal agencies to regulate any and every design and interface decision made by a social media company in the name of protecting some nebulous concept of public health. It's all too easy to imagine this being abused for political purposes to punish or elevate companies that have fallen out of favor with the government. Indeed, punishing social media companies that Hawley doesn't like for the sin of creating products that people want to use seems like the point of the bill. This is legislation in pursuit of an obvious political vendetta. 

It's also based on a misleading representation of the underlying health issues. Framing the issue as one of addiction, as Hawley's bill does, misrepresents the current medical consensus around heavy internet use. As Jeffrey Singer wrote for Reason earlier this year, researchers have not come to any firm consensus about whether the perception of heavy internet use—something difficult to pin down even when operating in good faith—constitutes addiction. Hawley's bill effectively tasks the federal government with determining which tech features are good for you and which ones aren't, which, given the federal government's poor record when it comes to making determinations about what's healthy, seems like a bad idea. 

Hawley has emerged as tech's most outspoken congressional critic. That makes this bill a fairly revealing example of how he thinks not only about social media companies, but about the ordinary users he claims to want to protect. 

Over the past several months, Hawley has proposed bills banning video game loot boxes and requiring large social media companies to seek a federal certification of political neutrality in order to maintain their current legal protections. He signed a letter to the FTC seeking federal investigations into conservative "censorship" on large tech platforms (in the process evincing a fundamental misunderstanding of what censorship is). In May, he delivered a speech titled "The Big Tech Threat," warning that tech companies are seeking to devour our attention and raising the question of whether they have any social value at all—as if the job of an elected official was to decide which industries are worthwhile and to eliminate any that doesn't pass muster from the marketplace. 

Hawley has it in for big tech. But this is more than just a petty political vendetta against Facebook and its peers. It is a larger worldview, one that presumes individuals are inherently powerless, that they cannot make informed decisions on their own, and that the government, via legislation and regulation, must therefore step in to protect them from their own stupidity. It attributes wizard-like mind-control powers to tech companies that simply don't exist, and it assumes that users are helpless to resist.  

Hawley's bill even warns, in its introduction, that the "design choices" he wants to ban "interfere with the free choice of users." But Hawley's vision of free choice requires the federal government to intervene and make their choices for them, down to the smallest design detail.

The problem with Hawley's bill isn't just that it's so pathetically trivial, or that it's a waste of resources in the context of our larger challenges. It's that it's designed to treat Americans like weak-willed children who need a politician like Josh Hawley to tell them how to live their lives. For someone who claims to champion the idea of individual dignity, Hawley has an awfully condescending view of human agency. 

Hawley's new bill probably won't pass. Like most of Hawley's anti-tech proposals so far, it's stunt legislation designed primarily to raise public awareness and get press. That's at least a little ironic for a bill that opens by declaring that "the business model for many internet companies, especially social media companies, is to capture as much of their users' attention as possible." He's been in office less than a year, but so far, capturing people's attention with time-wasting antics appears to be Josh Hawley's business model too.

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  1. If he widens it to ban autoplay in general, he has my support.

      1. I disagree. Social media is not a problem so big it requires the Federal Government to solve.

        Social media is a problem so big, the Federal Government has no hope of solving it.

        Idiocracy is coming.

        Scratch that. Idiocracy is already here.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CXSz0bA9CiE

    1. What are you? Some kind of statist? The market based solution is competenorndont use the product.

      1. /sarc, you need to pretend you see /sarc everywhere.

        1. Never apologize Mister, it’s a sign of weakness.

          If they can’t tell, they deserve the heart attack they cause themselves with their righteous indignation.

      2. So basically stop using the internet? Because it’s been 10+ years, no one likes autoplay video, yet every site still uses it because they know people don’t have a choice.

    2. Infinite scroll is also fucking terrible

    3. So when I’m at work and I’m streaming Bob Ross videos in the background, I’m going to have to individually start each one?

      1. Just for the first 3 months while the new federal department issues regulations requiring you to register your work location so that they can force social media platforms to deny you service there. Then you can only stream federal public service announcements about how helpful the feds are.

      2. So when I’m at work and I’m streaming Bob Ross videos in the background, I’m going to have to individually start each one?

        You can opt out of autoplay, but then your video streaming service is immune to any and all liability for streaming Triumph of the Will repeatedly after the first video has finished playing. If your employer fires you for watching videos of naked Nazi children, that’s your fault for watching Bob Ross. Read the TOS, subject to change without notice, better next time.

    4. You should note he only wants to ban autoplay for actual content. All advertising autoplay is specifically exempted from the law.

      Ads good. Youtube videos bad.

      1. Nah. That’s just a gentle reminder that, no matter what effort Representatives and Bureaucrats put in to reign in the terror of companies, the Ones Who Pay the Bills (aka political donors and bureaucrat bribers) will make sure that their business model won’t be affected by regulation, while their competitors will be quashed.

  2. The cosmopolitan elite are trying to hack the brains of our youth. This seems like a reasonable precaution to prevent that. If we can save one kid from the scourge of internet addiction, it will be worth it.

    1. But addiction isn’t real, right?

      1. A myth, you say?

  3. Does he want to ban TV too? Because that always seems to autoplay the next show too.

    1. The Internet is the new idiot box.

  4. I want it banned because fuck autoplay.

  5. “The bill would additionally require social media companies to install time-use dashboards”

    The capability to track your time already exists. Look at the bottom right corner of your screen…

    1. It needs to be on a dashboard, or you got nothing!

  6. The real lesson is that government is too powerful.

    1. And peopled with morons.

  7. How about a ban on automated (knee-jerk) legislation?

    1. Common sense legislation control: 4 year waiting period, sponsors must be able to recite the entire bill verbatim on the floor of the Senate or House, mandatory drug testing for all Olympic banned substances.

      1. I like it! Of course, some of these bills are so large, that just reciting the things (whether from memory or even just straight-up reading them) will fill up the 4-year waiting period.

        Which gives me an idea: the 4-year waiting period doesn’t start until the sponsors (and let’s require at least 15 sponsors per bill, just to be on the safe side) each demonstrate their ability to recite the bill from memory, and that they must prove their ability consecutively.

  8. That’s what American need.
    Another meddling nanny to micromanage our meaningless lives.
    What an asshole.

  9. “”Another meddling nanny to micromanage our meaningless lives.””

    See also, Democrat debates.

  10. Has Hawley seen the rock and roll?

    Maybe he should go visit Tipper Gore. Or Carry Nation.

    1. Wait until he finds out about the porn.

    2. It’s the pinball machines!

      1. Gotta ban the evil tobacco.

        Oh, wait, that one’s come around again.

  11. You can turn that off, you know.

    Instead of this, the government should just provide grants to people who want to go around yelling at people to stop staring at their goddamn phones all the time.

    That or not do anything.

  12. And don’t get him started on dancing! You know what that leads to!

    Drinking beer!

  13. While we are at it, let ban the autoplay feature on political encumbancy too. One play and you are out! No repeats.

  14. Josh Hawley will be replaced. By a less authoritarian, less bigoted, fresher-thinking, better American. Until then, he gets to be stomped into irrelevance in the culture war, starting with his statist, backward, partisan silliness concerning censorship of the intertubes.

    1. In other words, he’ll be replaced by a Libertarian-leaning Republican.

      Because there are plenty of Democrats who oppose this bill because it doesn’t go far enough.

  15. Can we ban autoplay ads that suck up data instead?

  16. “As Jeffrey Singer wrote for Reason earlier this year, researchers have not come to any firm consensus about whether the perception of heavy internet use—something difficult to pin down even when operating in good faith—constitutes addiction.”

    Why is it that I have the sneaky suspicion that, not only has this addiction problem not been confirmed, but that no one has even tested the “solutions” in the bill to see if they’ll limit the addictive behavior that he so fears?

    As for myself, I have had to resort to using a timer to turn off the WiFi after a certain hour, because otherwise I can’t get off the darn internet. And Social Media isn’t the problem: I often stay up late at night reading link after link on various blogs, often reading (and re-reading) addictive material like “Why C++ is not my favorite language” and court documents and why the philosophy and theology behind Harry Potter is flawed.

    Unfortunately, I haven’t yet been able to figure out how to turn off WiFi for paper books. Maybe I need to get rid of the hundreds of books I have at home, and cut up my library card….

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