Josh Hawley arrived in the Senate this year as a conquering Republican hero, after wresting a Democratic-held seat on a platform of religious liberty, low taxes and fights against “Washington overreach.”
Six months later, the former Missouri attorney general’s emergence as the chamber’s most relentless adversary of the tech industry has placed him at the center of a curious coalition of Democrats and Trump allies. But he’s confounding many of the libertarian Republicans who helped elect him — who say his proposals to rein in Silicon Valley’s accumulated power are verging into assaults on the free market and the First Amendment.
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Hawley embodies the rising threat facing some of the world’s most powerful companies, as political leaders of all ideological stripes sign on to break up or otherwise rein in online giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon. And it reflects how in the U.S., the modern GOP’s reluctance to tread on business can give way to larger worries about how major corporations are transforming society.
The Republican freshman’s anti-tech leadership has been “unbelievable,” says unlikely admirer Matt Stoller, a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and a fellow at the advocacy group Open Markets, which is pushing for Washington to crack down on the industry’s biggest players. “He’s definitely the most aggressive and assertive anti-monopolist on the Republican side — and, frankly, the entire Senate,” Stoller says.
Some of Hawley’s past supporters, though, are warning him that he’s going too far. They include Americans for Prosperity, the advocacy powerhouse backed by industrialists Charles and David Koch, which spent $2.1 million in ads helping to elect Hawley in 2018. Now, the group is opposing some of his legislative proposals, including one that would have federal regulators vet online platforms for political bias. In March, AFP ran online ads targeted at Hawley that warned against flirting with the idea of breaking up big tech firms.
“Both his rhetoric and his legislative proposals have been pretty disappointingly incompatible with the Constitution’s principles of limited government and very likely to be ineffective at making life better for innovators, entrepreneurs, and everyday Americans,” said Neil Chilson, a senior research fellow at Stand Together, the umbrella network for AFP and other Koch-backed groups.
As Hawley sees it, the Washington political establishment has for years been co-opted by Silicon Valley’s corporate lobbying army, forgetting about regular Americans while propping up what he branded in his fiery first Senate speech in May “the new aristocratic elite” running the country’s tech companies.
And he’s here in Washington, he says, to force a conversation he hears back home in Missouri about the tech industry’s destructive effects — from the vanishing of personal privacy to the resulting social isolation.
“This town has valorized the tech industry,” said Hawley in an interview with POLITICO in his Senate office, its bookshelves still largely bare. But he says voters in his state and across America are sending a different message: “We are tired of big government and big corporations who, by the way, we think don’t really like America that much.”
Hawley’s tired of them too, and he doesn’t shy away from saying it: “Maybe we’d be better off if Facebook disappeared,” Hawley mused in a May op-ed in USA Today.
Hawley’s passionate and frequent condemnations of Silicon Valley are winning him fans among cultural conservatives, particularly those who see social media companies as unfairly biased against them.
In a recent op-ed, Donald Trump Jr. praised Hawley’s “clear-eyed assessment of the ongoing affront to the freedoms of conservative speech and expression,” adding: “It’s high time other conservative politicians started heeding Hawley’s warnings.” The president retweeted his eldest son’s opinion piece.
Hawley, 39, has roots in Silicon Valley. He attended Stanford as a history major in the late 1990s. There was, he says, a lot of “big talk” of the greatness the internet was going to unleash. But it hasn’t panned out: “What they’ve given us in the last 20, 21 years, I think it’s really — it’s not much. They don’t have a whole heck of a lot to show for their efforts.”
Hawley went on to attend law school at Yale, and at 28 wrote a book about Teddy Roosevelt, called “Preacher of Righteousness,” which studied the one-time president’s antitrust record. Roosevelt, said Hawley, would be alarmed by Silicon Valley: “I think he’d be really worried. He’d be worried about the size, he’d be worried about the power, he’d be worried about the lack of accountability.”
In 2016, Hawley was elected attorney general of Missouri, going on to launch investigations into Google and Facebook on privacy, data handling and antitrust grounds. The probes, begun amid his Senate bid, were high-profile, with his office reaching out to national reporters. Other states followed suit. “We helped blaze a trail,” he says.
Chilson, of the Koch group Stand Together, says Hawley’s work on tech as attorney general didn’t raise concerns at the time because those were targeted cases within the traditional purview of the job. “That’s the job of an AG, to look at such issues,” Chilson says.
Hawley says that he can’t comment on those ongoing investigations but that what he learned about how the tech companies operate encouraged him to keep going once he reached the Senate. “Is Google and Facebook and Twitter in violation of antitrust laws? I don’t know the answer to that,” Hawley says. “But I think there’s a lot of smoke. So there may well be fire. So we need to look.”
He has stopped short — for now — of echoing Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s call to break up the biggest tech companies. “This is why we go through the process of having investigations, gathering data,” said Hawley. “Should we break them up? Maybe.”
That sort of talk alarms many in the tech industry.
“I think the critiques miss the overwhelming value that our companies and industry bring both to Missouri and the entire country,” said Michael Beckerman, CEO and president of the industry group the Internet Association. “When you just look at negatives and talk about making companies disappear, that would be a huge, huge disadvantage to Missouri and our entire country.”
Hawley himself is a user of social media, including Twitter and Facebook. Asked about it, Hawley says, “This is what happens when you get monopolies. It’s almost impossible to escape them.”
Still, he takes a different approach with the two sons, ages 4 and 6, that he is raising with his wife, Erin Morrow Hawley, a law professor and fellow former clerk to Chief Justice John Roberts: “No social media. Zilch. And they don’t do phones. We don’t even have an iPad.”
Hawley has partnered with an array of Democrats to push legislation addressing the online privacy rights of kids and other tech topics, including Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.), Senate Judiciary Committee top Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and long-time privacy hawk Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Together they’ve rolled out bills ranging from a proposal that would require companies to disclose how much money they make from user data, to another that would ban video services like YouTube from automatically recommending videos involving children.
Another of his Democratic legislative partners, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, praises the Republican as a fellow former state attorney general. “I think he has the mindset of a law enforcement official who is intent on protecting consumers and the public,” Blumenthal told POLITICO. “We have some common approaches and we’re going to try to do more about it.”
“We disagree a lot on a lot of things,” Hawley says about his Democratic allies. Hawley has called for building Trump’s proposed border wall, celebrated the United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear treaty negotiated by former President Barack Obama, and branded Roe v. Wade “one of the most unjust decisions” in the history of U.S. courts. “I think you see people who take tech very, very seriously, who are who are very knowledgeable, have worked to educate themselves and who want to actually get something done,” he says.
But the bills those partnerships have produced, coupled with Hawley’s anti-tech rhetoric, have raised alarm among some conservatives and tech industry representatives.
“He’s one of the smartest people in the legislature and he’s somebody who, when he puts his mind to something, is incredibly driven,” said Carl Szabo, general counsel for right-leaning industry group NetChoice. “This is why I’m as disheartened as I am to see him put a lot of his effort into attacks on America’s businesses and harms to America’s freedoms that we enjoy today.”
NetChoice, like the Internet Association, counts digital heavyweights like Google, Facebook and Twitter as members.
The move that has most riled up industry and some on the right is a bill, rolled out in late June, that would require online giants like Facebook and YouTube to get a Federal Trade Commission certification of their political neutrality to qualify for a prized liability shield. That measure would amend Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which protects platforms from lawsuits over user-generated content.
Hawley has billed the plan as a crackdown on “censorship” by Silicon Valley companies, which he and other Republicans accuse of stifling conservative content on their platforms.
But the proposal has drawn fire from both sides of the aisle. Critics say it would trample on the First Amendment right to constitutionally protected political speech, and would undermine companies’ ability to combat dangerous material, such as terrorist content and hate speech.
Former FTC Commissioner Josh Wright, a Republican, unleashed a 14-part tweet thread condemning Hawley’s social media proposal. The bill “quite literally injects a board of bureaucrats into millions of decisions about internet content,” one read. “This is central planning. Full stop.”
Hawley says he doesn’t get the critique. He argues that the federal government gifted the tech sector a tremendous advantage by giving it Section 230 protections, so it’s not overstepping to consider dialing them back. “I think the question we should be asking is, ‘What do we need to do to make these markets truly competitive, to protect people’s privacy, to make sure that there are open channels of communication when it comes to social media?’”
Hawley says his views on corporate consolidation align with those of voters in places like Missouri. “You’ve got Republican voters in one place and then you’ve kind of got Republican establishment in another place, and you’re seeing that tension in the tech debate,” he says.
As for falling out of favor with groups like Americans for Prosperity, says Hawley, “I’m a little puzzled by them, because I thought these groups who consider themselves libertarian, typically they consider themselves pro-free market. And so I’m surprised that there’s a lack of concern about market competition.”
Does he worry about losing the backing of the libertarian and establishment wings?
Hawley smiles and says no: “It was never my ambition to have a political career. So if I’m going to be here, I want to actually get something done.”