Snapstreaks, YouTube autoplay, and endless scrolling are all coming under fire from a new bill, which is sponsored by Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), targeting the tech industry’s “addictive” design.
Hawley’s Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology Act, or the SMART Act, would ban these features that work to keep users on platforms longer, along with others, like Snapstreaks, that incentivize the continued use of these products. If approved, the Federal Trade Commission and Health and Human Services could create similar rules that would expire after three years unless Congress codified them into law.
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction,” Hawley said. “Too much of the ‘innovation’ in this space is designed not to create better products, but to capture more attention by using psychological tricks that make it difficult to look away.”
Deceptive design played an enormous part in last week’s FTC settlement with Facebook, and Hawley’s bill would make it unlawful for tech companies to use dark patterns to manipulate users into opting into services. For example, “accept” and “decline” checkboxes would need to be the same font, format, and size to help users make better, more informed choices.
“Social media companies deploy a host of tactics designed to manipulate users in ways that undermines their wellbeing,” Josh Golin, executive director of campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, said.
At a hearing late last month, senators heard from a panel of experts on persuasive tech. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, explained how platforms create products to increase the amount of time users spend on a site. “If I take the bottom out of this glass and I keep refilling the water or the wine, you won’t know when to stop drinking,” Harris told the committee. “That’s what happens with infinitely scrolling feeds.”
Some companies, like Apple, already have tools that help users track how much time they’re spending on different apps and websites. If this bill were to become law, social media companies would be required to implement similar tools that track use across all of the devices a user owns.