Since arriving in the Senate in January, Missouri Republican Josh Hawley has emerged as a key player on technology policy and a thorn in the side of large companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon.
We sat down with him to discuss the cybersecurity threat posed by China, whether the government should break up Big Tech, and what he fears most from social media.
Q: You’ve said the United States and China are engaged in a technological arms race. What do you think we’re currently doing wrong?
A: I think we have not been sufficiently attendant to the fact that China has weaponized the international trade system and systematically taken advantage of and abused agreements with American companies that want to do business in China.
We have not realized — and by we, I mean the government and these private companies — the extent to which, if you enter into a technology transfer agreement with China, you are essentially benefiting the Chinese military and the Chinese government. That is a huge, huge problem, and it’s one of the reasons they’ve been able to build their tech sector so rapidly, by effectively stealing and coercively taking sensitive technology from this country.
Q: You’ve introduced legislation that would make it more difficult for companies to do business in China. How do you expect the business community to support it when, as Google CEO Sundar Pichai has said, its market is too enticing to ignore?
A: There’s really no neutral ground here. By entering into the Chinese market on their terms, you’re helping this repressive, authoritarian regime, which has more people locked up in concentration camps than any regime since the worst regimes of the middle of the 20th century.
These companies need to realize that and own up to it. I know their bottom line is important, but is it more important than the suffering and liberty of millions of people, not to mention their own customer’s privacy?
By doing business with the Chinese government, you’re effectively opening your supply chains and technologies to potential penetration. Why would we help them build an Orwellian surveillance state, and why would we do it in a way that’s severely to the detriment of our own citizens and security?
Q: On the other hand, what do you say to rural broadband providers who want to build 5G wireless networks and can buy equipment from Huawei for cheaper than a non-Chinese manufacturer?
A: I’m a big supporter of rural broadband. No kid should have to do his homework at the local McDonald’s because it’s the only place he can get on the internet.
Having said that, Huawei is not the answer. Using Huawei technologies opens the entire communications chain to spying and digital penetration by the Chinese government and militaries. There are open spaces and insecurities built into the Huawei network that are deliberately there to allow for backdoor entry by Chinese intelligence services.
We cannot say with any confidence that communications that happen over a Huawei network is in any way secure. It’s not acceptable for people’s confidential information, just like it’s not acceptable for our military and intelligence information.
Q: Switching to privacy, critics of your “Do Not Track” legislation, which would allow internet users to opt out of data collection, say it would widen the digital divide because apps and websites would no longer be free if users opted out of ad-based tracking. Is that true?
A: It’s a little misleading to say [Facebook and Google] are just ad-based platforms. Broadcast television is an ad-based platform. What Facebook and others have pioneered is the behavioral ad, where they collect so much information from you that they are then able to tailor to you, in a pretty precise way, specific advertisements. That’s why we’ve seen the massive influx of advertiser dollars onto those platforms and migration from traditional platforms, like journalism.
Digital advertising could continue with Do Not Track. What you wouldn’t be able to do is mislead the consumer, take their information without their consent, and monetize it without their permission.
Q: You recently asked Apple CEO Tim Cook to build a Do Not Track option into Apple products. Is there any indication they might do something like that?
A: Apple’s made a very public effort to brand itself as a pro-privacy company. Facebook is engaged in a privacy pivot, but so far it looks to be hollow and meaningless. So I’m hopeful that companies that seem a little more serious about this, as Apple does, will really want to do their part in stopping the exploitation of consumers. We’re talking about harvesting the private data and information of consumers and turning around and selling it.
I hope some companies will want to be leaders on this. Wouldn’t it be amazing if Apple said, “We’re going to offer every person who comes to our App Store a Do Not Track option on every app and they’ll be able to bank on it because we, Apple, will back it up and police it”?
Q: Switching to antitrust, your views have been compared to those held by Elizabeth Warren, who has a plan to break up Google, Facebook and Amazon.
A: Should these companies be broken up? I don’t know. We should see what the evidence is, but that ought to be on the table. We need to have a broader conversation about social media platforms, in particular, because it could be that we break up Facebook into 100 Facebooks, but if those 100 Facebooks all engage in data harvesting and other exploitative practices, would that be any better? I don’t think so.
Q: Republicans are angry with social media companies because of what they perceive as anti-conservative bias, and they spend a lot of time focused on that. How do you get your colleagues to take a more comprehensive approach?
A: Republicans should listen to their voters. The people I represent are very concerned about the power of these companies, the size of them and their control of information.
The other thing, for those of us that believe in free markets, is that free and fair competition is how a healthy market functions. There’s anecdotal evidence, enough to warrant antitrust scrutiny, that they’re using their size and power to engage in anti-competitive conduct. For somebody who is pro-free market, that’s worrisome.
Q: You’ve accused social platforms of hijacking our “neural circuitry to prevent rational decision-making about what to click and how to spend time.” What do suggest we do about it?
A: When you look at the data that continues to roll in — and there’s a lot more research that needs to be done — what we’re seeing are correlations between depression, loneliness, in some cases suicide rates, and social media use.
It’s really alarming. We need to be asking if we’re really expecting enough from the tech industry. There are real problems out there that need to be solved and real discoveries to be made. All this time and attention to build these ad-based social media platforms so they can make more money? That’s the great innovation of the 21st century? I hope not.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.