Yesterday, Senator Josh Hawley proposed a bill to voice against the different techniques tech giants use to exploit users’ attention for keeping them addicted to their apps. The Social Media Addiction Reduction Technology (SMART) Act would “ban certain features that are designed to be addictive, would require choice parity for consent, and would give users the power to monitor their time spent on social media”, Sen. Hawley’s official post states.
“Big tech has embraced a business model of addiction. 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. This legislation will put an end to that and encourage true innovation by tech companies,” Senator Hawley said.
“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”, The Verge reports.
The bill would ban user in-app achievements such as “Snapstreak” on Snapchat that gets the user addicted and difficult to leave the social media platform.
[box type=”shadow” align=”” class=”” width=””]Snapchat explains Snapstreaks as “The number next to the 🔥 tells you how many days you’ve been on a Snapstreak. For example, if you have an 8 next to the 🔥 it means you both have Snapped (not chatted) back and forth with this friend for 8 days.[/box]
The bill, if passed, would require social media organizations to, within six months, implement a feature allowing users to set a time limit on how long they can access the platform each day. With the default time limit being 30 minutes, “if the user elects to increase or remove the time limit, [it] resets the time limit to 30 minutes a day on the first day of every month,” the bill text says. The bill also demands including a pop-up every 30-minute that would notify users of the total time spent. Apple and Google have included these monitoring systems with Screen Time and Digital Wellbeing. Instagram and Facebook also let you keep tabs on how much time you spend on them each day.
Josh Golin, Executive Director of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, said, “Social media companies deploy a host of tactics designed to manipulate users in ways that undermines their wellbeing. We commend Senator Hawley for introducing legislation that would prohibit some of the most exploitative tactics, including those frequently deployed on children and teens.”
Sen. Hawley talked about natural stopping points, like the end of a page, naturally prompt users to choose whether to continue reading. However, tech giants eliminate these mental opportunities by using structures like infinite scroll for newsfeeds and autoplay for videos. Within three months, if the bill is passed, the companies would be banned from offering features that automatically load and display content “other than music or video content that the user has prompted to play” without that person opting in. If users have reached the end of a block of a tweet, they will have to “specifically request (such as by pushing a button or clicking an icon, but not by simply continuing to scroll) that additional content is loaded and displayed.”
In a hearing on putting legislative limits on the persuasiveness of technology, late last month, 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. That’s what happens with infinitely scrolling feeds”, Harris explained the committee.
According to Bloomberg, Google and Facebook declined to comment. NetChoice, a trade group that counts both companies as members, said, “The goal of this bill is to make being online a less-enjoyable experience.”
Many users and app developers are not in favour of the bill and have exclaimed why this tech is was implemented. A user on HackerNews writes, “I’m the dev that built Netflix’s autoplay of the next episode. We built it first on the web player because it is easy to A/B test new features there. We called it “post-play” at the time……So yes, Netflix wants you to spend more hours watching Netflix and the product team is scientifically engineering the product to make it more addictive. But…the product team at Doritos does the same thing.”
When you're signing something online, the link to the terms and conditions have to be "above the fold." The FDA sets the type face for nutrition facts.
Now, which has a bigger impact on your life — nutrition labels and T&Cs, or how your phone apps work on your brain?
— Patrick Brennan (@ptbrennan11) July 30, 2019
A user on Reddit comments, “I design user interactions for a living, and infinite scroll is used ALL the time, and often in different levels/areas of a page. Just like we can design things to be fast, easy, addicting, etc, we can design things to be slow and require more consideration….. This seems like a thoughtless proposal that needs to be a step up from where it is: …..”
Even if you believe that government should regulate addictive substances, there's no consensus that social media should be defined as addictive: https://t.co/5IV2EJ2btN
— Peter Suderman (@petersuderman) July 30, 2019
Without commenting on the specifics of the Hawley bill (haven't read it yet), the counterarguments I see often take an impossibly dumb form. Theoretically, they might apply to the regulation of almost anything addictive.
— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) July 30, 2019
A lot of users may not accept the conditions of this bill as they feel it would be too restrictive and the pop-ups after certain time interval may break their continuity online, and a lot other factors. However, some feel, social media companies can at least provide choices for users to keep autoplay settings on.
A user David Kwan commented on The Verge article, “With the intent of establishing UX/UI design policies, instead of a ”ban,” the US gov could establish design guidelines (like the UK gov) that can help mitigate online addiction and other design matters that affect how people interact with digital media. For example, instead of allowing platforms like YouTube to set autoplay settings “on” by default, the default setting should be set to “off” instead.”
I actually think all of these ideas are good, and I would add that terms of services agreements should be illegal and covered by a national privacy framework as well.
But the furor over Big Tech has realigned a lot of policy ideas between parties, and it's kind of wild to see
— nilay patel (@reckless) July 30, 2019
In May, Sen. Hawley introduced a bill to ban loot boxes in video games that said such microtransactions exist to exploit children. In June, he introduced a bill that declares top internet companies to undergo external audits to evaluate whether their content moderation systems are free of political bias.
To know more about Sen. Hawley’s SMART Act in detail, read the proposed bill.