Senator Josh Hawley has made a big splash since he arrived in Washington back in January. His focus on tech monopolies, online gambling, addiction, and other issues centered around Silicon Valley seem like a new Republican policy priority, something crafted by an enterprising political entrepreneur. Liberal publications like ThinkProgress have even gone as far to call Hawley, “The one man most likely to turn the U.S. into a theocracy.”
There’s just one problem, he isn’t.
Hawley is going back to the Republican politics of his adolescence and early adulthood, when Republicans and conservative Democrats like Joe Lieberman and Hillary Clinton (yes, she was considered conservative back then) trained their eyes on what they thought was ailing American children — video games.
In the 1990s, just as video games characters started to look less like cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another and more like actual living things, politicians started to champion the growing public concern over the effects of violent imagery on the youth of the nation. (RELATED: Hawley Goes After Video Game Makers Who He Claims Exploit Children)
Much like today’s conservative social media activists, all sorts of colorful characters emerged to fight this battle. Jack Thompson was one of them. Thompson, a notoriously litigious attorney and anti-video game activist, cut his teeth in politics cultivating public outrage after public outrage, attempting to bring regulatory action against the still nascent industry. His strategy was simple: every time a major mass shooting or killing occurred, he would look for any ties between the perpetrator and violent video games. He would then seek out the families of the victims and convince them to let him file suit on their behalf against gaming companies.
Thompson made a lot of money and got a lot of attention repeating this stunt for over a decade.
His failed lawsuits did bring attention to violent video games, however, and soon legislators, Republican and Democrat alike, started to take interest. For a while it really looked like there was going to be legislative action, and then, all of a sudden, it stopped.
The industry was terrified of what would happen if a bunch of old fogies who had never typed a sentence on a computer before, much less played a video game, started attempting to regulate the innovative industry. So they fought back.
The Entertainment Software Association was founded, and their primary project at the time became the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB). The ESRB was the gaming industry’s attempt to self-regulate and avoid more punitive government action. Game stores would agree not to sell games that were not rated for maturity level by the ESRB and in return Congress would back off from its regulatory ambitions. Aside from a few obsessive elected officials, it worked. The popular movement to regulate video games dissipated.
Which brings us back to what Senator Hawley is doing, and what the point of it is.
He has proposed massive, far-reaching legislation that seeks to completely upend the tech industry. The left finds him scary. But if his goal is to emulate the private action in response to threatened public action of the 1990’s, he may be on to something.
Hawley’s legislation has come under criticism from libertarian leaning commentators and tech experts as fundamentally misunderstanding the way the industry works. For instance, his criticism of “infinite scroll” features on social media apps implies that he wants to paginate, or separate into distinct pages, the social feeds that you consume, something that is irreconcilable with the current format apps like Facebook and Twitter use. (RELATED: Hawley Seeks To Ban Certain Social Media Features In Effort To Curb ‘Addiction’)
This is the kind of legislative action tech companies fear, morally driven and structurally threatening. It is also the kind of political threat that is most likely to drive change.
Because the modern criticisms of the tech industry are bipartisan, like the ones that faced the videogame industry, they have actually been stewing for years. In Silicon Valley’s native California, state legislators have been angling to regulate the tech industry for years, leading to some companies making a strategic decision to lead on certain issues before they achieve national attention.
Take Apple, a company that has, of their own accord, made many of the changes Hawley advocates for in his legislation. Safari is one of the most private and advertising-unfriendly browsers on the market. iOS has native screen-time measurement and limitation tools. And Apple has frequently stuck its neck out to maintain user privacy even when faced with overwhelming pressure from intelligence agencies.
Hawley has recognized Apple’s leadership on these issues, and as such they avoid some of his more strident criticism.
Where history may stop rhyming is what happens next, and it’s because of size. Silicon Valley today is significantly more globalized, large, and powerful than the videogame industry ever was. As such, they have the ability to exert power on Washington in a way that no single game company or even the entire collective gaming industry ever could have.
Massive tech companies also have the ability to affect the core infrastructure of our polity. The ability to affect search, as presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard learned the hard way, can cripple the political ambitions of reformers. (RELATED: Tulsi Gabbard Sues Google)
The tech industry may decide to back down and self-regulate like its predecessor of the political spotlight the gaming did. Or it may decide to fight. No matter what it decides, there has and always will be a bipartisan impulse to protect American children and adults alike from a tech industry that politicians are inherently suspicious and fearful of.
Like a true 90’s kid, that’s what Hawley stands for.