Missouri Sen. Hawley finds a new target in his war with tech industry: Candy Crush

Sen. Josh Hawley has a new target in his crusade against Big Tech: Candy Crush and other apps aimed at kids that can be surprisingly costly for parents.

The Missouri Republican introduced legislation Wednesday that would ban “pay-to-win” apps targeted to children. These are often offered for free, but users end up paying for upgrades, bonus features and other rewards.

“When a game is designed for kids, game developers shouldn’t be allowed to monetize addiction,” Hawley said in a statement announcing the bill. “And when kids play games designed for adults, they should be walled off from compulsive microtransactions. Game developers who knowingly exploit children should face legal consequences.”

It’s the latest example of the freshman Republican taking on the tech industry, a cause that has defined Hawley’s first months in office. Last week, in a speech to Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, he railed against social media companies for profiting off the addiction of their users.

Hawley has already introduced a bill to restrict internet companies from collecting data from users under the age of 13.

Both pieces of legislation rely on the existing Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Hawley’s bill to curb “pay-to-win” apps would use COPPA’s definitions to determine whether an app intended for children.

Josh Golin, the executive director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, applauded Hawley for introducing the legislation.

“It is beyond unfair for developers to rig their games to manipulate children into making purchases themselves or nagging their parents to do so. Games that require additional payments to advance take advantage of children’s natural inclination to master new skills and compete,” Golin said in a statement.

The measure takes particular aim at Candy Crush Saga, a popular puzzle game which Hawley’s office noted in the statement has “a Candy Land style cartoon aesthetic.”

Hawley’s office pointed to a bundle the app offers that enables users to pay $149.99 for 24 hours of unlimited lives and other bonus features.

Activision, the California-based company that distributes the game, declined to comment on Hawley’s legislation and deferred to the Entertainment Software Association, a trade group for the video game industry.

Stanley Pierre-Louis, acting president and CEO of the association, said in an email that apps already come with features meant to prevent kids from making purchases without parental consent. “Parents already have the ability to limit or prohibit in-game purchases with easy to use parental controls,” he said in an email.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of NetChoice, a group which represents the tech industry, called Hawley’s bill well-intentioned but overly broad. He said the bulk of “loot-box games” are targeted at adults rather than teens.

“Furthermore, as a parent, it’s my right to choose what games and services are appropriate for my children, not the government’s,” Szabo said in an email.

Hawley’s bill would task the Federal Trade Commission with enforcing the proposed rule barring these games and enable state attorneys general to sue the companies that develop and distribute the apps.

The legislation was introduced the same week that Hawley and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, sent a letter to the FTC calling on the commission to conclude its investigation into Facebook’s alleged violation of a 2011 consent agreement by improperly sharing data of 80 million users and to impose deterrent penalties.

Hawley has argued that a possible $5 billion penalty for the tech giant is insufficient, but in an interview with The Star this week declined to name a dollar figure that would satisfy him.

“If you think about the fact that individual violations under the law can be penalized up to, I think, it’s $42,000 and change per violation, and we’re talking here about millions and millions of users’ data being compromised… It’s massive. Tens of billions,” Hawley said. “I don’t know that we have a target figure. It’s just got to be something that is more than just change to Facebook.”

Szabo rejected Hawley’s argument that a $5 billion fine would be a minor cost for the tech giant.

“A $5 billion fine is 100 times bigger than the EU’s privacy fine against Google, 200 times larger than the largest FTC fine of a tech company and more than purchase price of Marvel Studios. A $5 billion fine would fund the FTC for the next decade,” Szabo said.

He also argued that Hawley’s suggestion that FTC could hold Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg personally liable as a dangerous precedent that would be “ripe for abuse in an era of anti-corporate populism.”

Hawley has previously floated the idea of amending the 1996 law that allows Facebook and other social media companies to operate to protect against what he calls viewpoint exclusion.

Last week, Facebook banned several high profile extremists: Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, far right provocateur Milo Yiannapoulos and Laura Loomer, a far right activist who has previously been banned from Twitter for anti-Muslim comments.

Loomer chased after Hawley in March following his appearance at the American Conservative Union’s annual CPAC conference, where he highlighted his concerns about social media companies.

Loomer asked for a meeting with Hawley and, in a video that was posted to social media, the senator appeared to agree as he hurried away. She was banned from the conference the following day after questions were raised about CPAC’s decision to give her media credentials.

Before she was banned, Loomer posted to her Facebook account that Hawley agreed to meet with her “about social media bias so that we can work together to stop the silencing of Conservative voices in America.” She added, “Let’s make sure he keeps his promise.”

Hawley still has no plans to meet with Loomer. He instead called on social media companies to make their policies for removing people from platforms public.

“It was a Twitter exec, if memory serves, who said to me of course they have protocols that govern— it’s not just algorithms who make these decisions— they have particular protocols that govern human interactions in terms of making decisions to platform or de-platform. I’d like to see all of those,” Hawley said.

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Bryan Lowry covers Kansas and Missouri politics as Washington correspondent for The Kansas City Star. He previously served as Kansas statehouse correspondent for The Wichita Eagle and as The Star’s lead political reporter. Lowry contributed to The Star’s investigation into government secrecy that was a finalist for The Pulitzer Prize.
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