Facebook has become a kitchen table issue, and Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., knows it. His aggressive approach to the Silicon Valley giant, and the tech industry more broadly, is both nuanced and culturally aware—qualities the upper chamber has lacked.
While some conservatives may bristle at Hawley’s ostensible appetite for regulation, the senator is consciously seeking to blaze a new path. Yes, it’s part of the Trump-era culture war, and could certainly come to involve objectionable policy proposals, but it’s also a fight in which partisan battle lines have yet to be clearly drawn. That’s in no small part why his efforts warrant attention.
Take, for instance, this pointed six-page letter Hawley sent Mark Zuckerberg on Monday. Not only did Hawley accuse the CEO of working “to capture and subvert the privacy revolution that threatens your business model and claim an empty public relations victory,” but he supplemented that charge with 15 detailed questions about changes to the platform.
“Will [Facebook] commit to establishing a firewall between data related to user messaging, including metadata related to links shared through the platform, and the rest of its data infrastructure?” Hawley asked, adding, “If not, will Facebook cooperate with inquiries by Congress and the FTC regarding whether its public representations about this messaging platform are misinforming consumers?”
The senator further requested information on what metadata Facebook will keep from messaging exchanges, how it will be used, how long it will be kept, and whether it will be used with other profile data to “enhance ad targeting.” Hawley pressed Zuckerberg on the privacy of financial information shared through Facebook’s online payment mechanisms, and plans for encryption in updated group spaces as well.
Hawley even took an informed stand for the news media, noting how the “pivot-to-video” came “at the expense of “shoe-leather reporting,” and inquiring whether Facebook had taken steps to prepare dependent publishers for recent changes:
As a major online content platform, Facebook holds the fate of America’s news publishers in its hands. It has not proven itself a worthy custodian. Publishers have in recent years been victimized by capricious changes to Facebook’s algorithmn, such as its ‘pivot to video,’ which prompted massive shifts in the media industry’s productive capacity toward the development of video content at the expense of shoe-leather reporting. Such sudden shifts have led to the collapse of local newspapers and major digital news startups alike.
“I fear that you have not—and that newsrooms across the country are already reeling from the launch of your new mobile product,” Hawley wrote.
Hawley sent his letter on Monday, two days ahead of his first speech on the Senate floor, which is scheduled for today. Previewing the speech in a Washington Post interview, the senator framed his efforts as part of a broader thrust to shift conservatism from nostalgic Reaganism to better deal with the problems of the 21st century.
“Government has a role to play. We need a shift in policy,” Hawley told the Post. The senator said something similar to Zuckerberg as well. “The burden to protect the American people from forces parasitic on our national life and on our economy is on me and my colleagues. I take my responsibilities seriously,” he wrote. “I hope you do the same for yours.”
“If you do not,” Hawley continued, “you should anticipate policy changes in the years to come to force behavior change on the part of your senior managers, including legislation holding you and your colleagues personally liable for conduct whose consequences currently fall on Facebook’s shareholders.”
To the extent he’s fighting Facebook on the regulatory front, Hawley’s “crusade against Big Tech,” as the Kansas City Star has dubbed it, is also rooted in deep cultural concerns, voicing the frustrations of the so-called “great middle.”
“They are angry at Big Tech. They are angry at Big Pharma. They are angry at being ignored by Washington and by the elites,” Hawley told the Post, echoing the themes of his campaign.
“We’ve got to get a politics that honors that and is focused towards rebuilding and renewing those folks and their way of life,” said Hawley. “If we do not, then I think we’ll probably look back on the rancor and the division of these years and say, ‘That was pleasant,’ in comparison to what might come.”
None of this is to say all of Hawley’s policy proposals will be sound, or will necessarily advocate for a reasonable use of government authority and resources. But his approach—waging war on both the regulatory and cultural fronts—is significant, for the conservative movement, the GOP, and the future of the tech industry.
As both parties grapple with surging populism, Hawley has identified Big Tech as a worthy battleground. No doubt Zuckerberg is paying attention.