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Hawley proposes regulation of social apps to curb internet addiction



U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Missouri, continued his crusade against big tech on Tuesday by introducing a bill to rein in addictive apps.

Hawley’s new legislation, the Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act — or SMART Act for short — is designed to curb the influence of apps such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat, which the bill says use “human psychology or brain physiology to substantially impede freedom of choice.”

Many internet companies, and social media companies in particular, have business models that rely on capturing user attention for as long as possible. Most social media platforms are free for users and make the bulk of their money off advertisements.

Hawley is looking to ban the following features on apps:

  • Infinite scroll or auto refill: There are two types of scrolling typically utilized by apps and websites. Infinite scroll is deployed by apps such as Instagram and Facebook, giving the illusion of limitless amounts of information.
  • Elimination of natural stopping points: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter are some of the main culprits of this practice, which the bill outlines as loading more content onto a platform than users can look at in three minutes without user request.
  • Autoplay: Instead of stopping after a single video, platforms like YouTube often load “suggested” videos in an autoplay loop, keeping users on the site. Hawley’s proposed ban would not apply to music streaming apps.
  • Badges and other in-app awards: This includes “Snapstreaks” on Snapchat, which acknowledge users for the number of consecutive days they’ve interacted with specific contacts.

The legislation would require social media companies to feature a number of addiction-prevention efforts, including:

  • Allowing users to program apps to close after specific amounts of time spent using them
  • Creating a default setting limiting the use of apps to 30 minutes per day
  • Regularly disclosing how much time the user is spending on the app broken down by day, week, month, year and platform
  • Sending pop-up notifications informing users after every 30 minutes spent on a single app

These regulations wouldn’t apply to texting or email apps.

Hawley, a first-term senator elected in 2018, has been a staunch critic of big tech dating back to his days as the state’s attorney general.

Hawley and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, introduced legislation in June that would require tech companies to prove their political neutrality. The bill would end Section 230 immunity for internet giants like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, which has historically given such platforms legal immunity from what their users post.

The act would require social media giants to submit to audits proving their algorithms are politically neutral.

Hawley and Cruz followed that by calling on the Federal Trade Commission to investigate the companies’ influence on free speech.

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