Tech

Broadband dreams hit a snag

With help from Alexandra S. Levine, John Hendel and Julia Arciga

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— Infrastructure latest: Congress averted a government shutdown Thursday, but House lawmakers are expected to keep wrangling over the bipartisan infrastructure package today.

— Deadlocked again: The Senate has confirmed FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, meaning the FTC will once again be split along party lines.

— Reality check: Another “Big Tech” hearing has come and gone. Will it be enough for lawmakers to take action against the companies?

IT’S FRIDAY, OCT. 1. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH. I’m your host, Benjamin Din. You know it’s October when FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr shares his ranking of the worst Halloween candies. What do you think? I’d say it’s pretty spot on.

Got a news tip? Email me at [email protected] and find me on Twitter @benjamindin. Got an event for our calendar? Send details to techcal[email protected]. Anything else? Team info below. And don’t forget: Add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.

INFRASTRUCTURE WEEK NEVER ENDS — Democrats will pick up this morning where they left off last night on infrastructure, unable to hammer out a deal with centrist Sens. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) on a separate but linked Democratic social spending package that they say is too expensive.

— What’s on the line: The trillion-dollar infrastructure package includes $65 billion for broadband — a historic investment in closing the digital divide. Of that money, $14 billion would fund a codified version of the pandemic-era Emergency Broadband Benefit program, although the monthly subsidy for low-income Americans would be slashed from $50 to $30. The lion’s share of that money — roughly $42 billion — would go toward grants for building out broadband infrastructure. Although President Joe Biden initially wanted to prioritize municipal broadband, both private ISPs and city-run networks would be eligible to bid for state grants of this money.

Manchin and Sinema met with White House officials last night, trying to come to a compromise on the $3.5 trillion social spending package also working its way through the Senate. Progressives have threatened to tank the bipartisan infrastructure bill if that separate bill isn’t completed in tandem. But the pair of moderate Democrats, whose votes in the evenly split Senate amount to veto power, held firm against the social spending bill’s high price tag, and Manchin told reporters Thursday night he wanted that topline number to be slashed to $1.5 trillion. That would further inflame things with progressives, who say they’ve already come down significantly from their initial proposal of $6 trillion.

At stake in the $3.5 trillion social spending bill: $4 billion to boost the FCC’s Emergency Connectivity Fund, a pandemic program aimed at connecting students and library patrons to the internet, and $1 billion to create an FTC bureau focused on privacy and data security violations, among other tech and telecom priorities.

— What’s next: Despite all this, the bipartisan infrastructure deal is not dead, although some moderates are likely upset that the scheduled vote has been pushed back twice (our Heather Caygle points out a technicality that could mollify some of those grumblings). In a Thursday night letter to her caucus, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi thanked her colleagues and said that “discussions continue with the House, Senate and White House” but did not mention a timeline for a potential vote.

“We are closer to an agreement than ever,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement Thursday evening. “But we are not there yet, and so, we will need some additional time to finish the work, starting tomorrow morning first thing.”

IMPENDING DEADLOCK AT THE FTC — With Chopra leaving and Biden’s replacement pick, Alvaro Bedoya, in limbo, FTC Chair Lina Khan will no longer have a Democratic majority. And with two Republican commissioners who have vocally opposed many of her ideas, she won’t be able to get big-ticket items like a rulemaking on privacy underway until her commission is fully staffed again.

— Waiting game: Biden tapped Bedoya to take over Chopra’s spot at the commission in mid-September, even as other agencies still awaited fresh nominees — an indicator of how important the FTC will be for the administration’s push to promote competition in the economy. (By contrast, the FCC still lacks a permanent chair and a nominee for the open fifth commissioner slot.) Bedoya, a privacy expert, would be a welcome addition to the agency for Democrats on the Hill, as they look to fund a new $1 billion privacy and data security enforcement bureau at the FTC. The Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the agency, has not yet announced a hearing on Bedoya’s nomination.

ICYMI: TOP PRIVACY STAFFERS LEAVE FTC — Maneesha Mithal, associate director of the FTC’s privacy unit, and Daniel Kaufman, deputy director of the FTC’s consumer protection bureau, resigned from the agency this week after decades of service, Emily scooped for Pros on Thursday. Mithal is headed to Wilson Sonsini, Google’s go-to law firm and a top Silicon Valley player.

SO THE SENATE SKEWERED FACEBOOK. NOW WHAT? — Nearly every time Congress holds a blockbuster hearing with top brass from one of the “Big Four” tech companies — complete with an unrelenting grilling by tech-skeptic lawmakers and a cringeworthy viral soundbite — we come away wondering: Is the bipartisan outrage strong enough this time for Congress to crack down on Facebook or its peers? After the Senate’s session with Facebook global head of safety Antigone Davis on Thursday, close observers think so.

“Facebook’s failure to adequately answer the questions, and its continuing denials about the unhealthy consequences of its social media system for young people and other vulnerable populations, sets the stage for much broader action against the company and others, such as YouTube [and] TikTok,” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Digital Democracy. “Facebook has given lawmakers and regulators an invaluable political opening to begin restructuring how it can do business, in terms of research, advertising and data use.”

— About those other platforms: It may have seemed, at least on Thursday, that other social media apps like TikTok, Snap and Google-owned YouTube had managed to elude the congressional spotlight, despite having similar problems with underage users, manipulative algorithms and abusive or noxious content. But not for long: TikTok and others have been and will be called on to testify before the Senate Commerce consumer protection panel, according to Chair Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “Others will be here,” he said. “At this point we’re not specifying who, but I would emphasize that each company bears its own responsibility. The race to the bottom has to stop.”

— What’s next: The identity of the Facebook whistleblower who turned over a trove of documents to Congress and The Wall Street Journal, revealing what the company knows about its effects on young users’ mental health, will be revealed any day now. She is set to testify before Blumenthal’s subcommittee early next week, following a scheduled appearance Sunday on “60 Minutes.”

Watch to see how the company responds, beyond its current defense: that the leaked research on Instagram’s effects on young users has been badly taken out of context, and it in fact supports Facebook’s case for a safer and more private kid-friendly Instagram app. (That project was put on ice this week as Facebook deals with fallout from the whistleblower.) Asked repeatedly Thursday whether the company will take action against the whistleblower or others who come forward, Davis weighed her words, telling Blumenthal: “We’ve committed to not retaliating for this individual speaking to the Senate.”

FCC FIELD HEARING TO PROBE RESILIENT COMMUNICATIONS FCC acting chief Jessica Rosenworcel plans to keep her push for more resilient communications networks front and center next month with a virtual field hearing on Hurricane Ida and howa to create durable communications more generally. She announced the plans on Thursday, after commissioners voted to launch a rulemaking on the subject, and said the field hearing will be part of the agency’s open meeting scheduled for Oct. 26.

Policymakers have frequently pointed to intensifying weather fueled by climate change as propelling a need for these discussions, and a Senate Democratic duo has proposed billions in grants to fortify networks.

“Challenges caused by climate change — everything from record high and low temperatures to storms of greater ferocity and scope — are coming into sharper focus,” Democratic Commissioner Geoffrey Starks said Thursday. “Now is the time for the FCC to update our rules for this era of climate-based events.”

— Speaking of public safety communications: Several public safety groups are urging Congress to “fully fund” the technological upgrade of 911 call centers for the digital age, which would allow them to receive not only phone calls but also video, photos and other pieces of data that callers may be able to send. House Democrats have proposed slating $10 billion to do so as part of their social spending package, although that total will likely fluctuate amid ongoing negotiations.

HOUSE PANEL PASSES E-COMMERCE, CANNABIS BILLS — The House Judiciary Committee approved both the SHOP SAFE Act and the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act in a two-day markup that concluded Thursday, clearing the way for a House floor vote.

Amazon cares about these bills. The SHOP SAFE Act, a bipartisan bill that would make e-commerce platforms more responsible for policing counterfeit goods, sailed through the committee on Wednesday in a 30-8 vote. The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, which was approved Thursday, 26-15, would seek to legalize marijuana at the federal level and clear the criminal records of people with related drug convictions. Amazon has been lobbying for the bill and removed cannabis from the company’s pre-employment drug screening process, taking a more relaxed stance on marijuana use than many major U.S. employers.

Meagan McCanna will be the first director of government affairs for NVIDIA. She previously spent five years at Airbnb building its government affairs program. … Noah Evans is joining Sen. Cynthia Lummis’ (R-Wyo.) comms staff. He most recently was at Plus Communications and worked on the 2020 Trump campaign. … Skylar Olsen is joining fintech startup Tomo as principal economist. Olsen was previously senior principal economist at Zillow.

Amazon, Google and Microsoft have launched the Trusted Cloud Principles, an initiative aimed at protecting the rights of cloud technology customers, especially surrounding privacy and data security. Atlassian, Cisco, IBM, Salesforce, Slack and SAP have signed on to the principles.

The FCC announced the six working groups for its Communications Security, Reliability and Interoperability Council, including some focused on open RAN and 5G.

Hold up: “FTC Chief Khan Resurrects Antitrust Review of Zillow Deal That Staff Previously Cleared,” The Information reports.

Wanted: “There’s a Multibillion-Dollar Market for Your Phone’s Location Data,” via The Markup.

Called out: “Bezos Wants to Create a Better Future in Space. His Company Blue Origin Is Stuck in a Toxic Past,” former employees write in Lioness.

Coast to coast: “How Miami seduced Silicon Valley,” via New York Mag.

Seeking answers: “Sen. Scott probes LinkedIn, Microsoft on censoring U.S. journalists’ in China,” via Axios.

Nope: Five9 shareholders shot down Zoom’s nearly $15 billion acquisition of the company, WSJ reports.

Unexpected allies: “Uber temporarily suspends Brussels service in first for Europe,” via Reuters.

Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Bob King ([email protected]), Heidi Vogt ([email protected]), John Hendel ([email protected]), Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected]), Leah Nylen ([email protected]), Emily Birnbaum ([email protected]), and Benjamin Din ([email protected]). Got an event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. And don’t forget: Add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.

HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND!



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