Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., intends to focus his efforts in the current Congress on legislation aimed at protecting children online, including by raising the minimum age to use social media to 16.
In an interview with NBC News, Hawley outlined some of the highlights of his agenda, including:
requiring social media companies to verify their users’ ages.
Giving parents the right to request that tech companies delete their children’s data.
Creating a broad congressional mental-health study on the impact of social media on children.
“This is about protecting kids, about protecting their mental health, about protecting their safety,” Hawley explained. “There is ample evidence that big tech companies prioritise profits over protecting children online.”
Since his election to the Senate in 2018, Hawley has made scrutinising the tech industry a centrepiece of his political platform, advocating for the breakup of tech behemoths and limiting TikTok’s reach.
Those efforts were hampered after Hawley drew bipartisan condemnation for his infamous photo taken before the Jan. 6 riot and his formal objection to state election results. Nonetheless, he has advanced legislation on technology and China with Democrats since then. His efforts have also frequently run counter to more traditional conservative economic theory, but have gained traction among conservatives dismayed by the industry’s broad influence and perceived anti-conservative bias.
According to Hawley, over the last decade, tech companies have engaged in a “giant social experiment involving our kids, in which big tech makes gobs of money, collects gobs of data, which they then sell and make even more money on.”
“And children are injured in the process,” he added. “So the entire goal of this agenda is: Let’s do something real and tangible to protect kids online and give power back to parents.”
Hawley plans to release individual pieces of legislation in the coming months, with the hope of attracting bipartisan interest in the divided Congress.
“I’ve had a lot of conversations with Democrats across the aisle and over the years about this topic in general and about various pieces of this,” Hawley said. “This is not a partisan issue in my opinion. This is about protecting children from irresponsible and rapacious big tech companies, after all. Every parent in America, regardless of political affiliation or lack thereof, can agree on that.”
Hawley’s announcement came just hours before President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, during which he was expected to call for increased data privacy online and a bipartisan effort to ban youth-targeted advertising, among other things.
“We must hold social-media companies accountable for the experiment they are conducting on our children for profit,” Biden wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, adding, “There will be many policy issues we disagree on in the new Congress, but bipartisan proposals to protect our privacy and our children; to prevent discrimination, sexual exploitation, and cyberstalking; and to address anticompetitive behaviour should not separate us.”
Late last year, Biden signed legislation championed by Hawley that prohibited the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok from being used on most government devices. This legislative push comes as the company’s ties to China are being scrutinised in Congress.
Hawley seeks to expand on that effort, announcing plans late last month to introduce legislation prohibiting the use of TikTok throughout the United States.
Democrats have also called for TikTok restrictions, with Colorado Senator Michael Bennet telling The New York Times earlier this month that Apple and Google should remove TikTok from their app stores due to national security concerns.
“I don’t want to do stuff that is just sort of symbolic,” Hawley, a parent of three young children, said of his upcoming legislative effort aimed at protecting children online.
“We’re looking for ways to give parents and children, where appropriate, actual legal rights to force companies to do XYZ or go to court,” he said. “So I think that giving real legal power, shifting power from tech companies to parents and children through enforceable rights, including legal recourse, is a key thing here.”