Tech

Senate Commerce tackles Biden’s telecom picks

With help from John Hendel and Alexandra S. Levine

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— Senate showdown: Gigi Sohn and Alan Davidson will face Senate Commerce lawmakers this morning. Expect lots of fireworks related to Sohn’s nomination, which has split Republicans.

— Scrutiny for Section 230: There’s sure to be some partisan disagreements at today’s House Energy and Commerce hearing on ways to amend the law shielding tech platforms from liability for their users’ posts.

— Haugen’s return: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will testify at that House hearing. Here’s what she wants lawmakers to know — and what they should avoid — as they mull tweaks to 230.

IT’S WEDNESDAY, DEC. 1. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Benjamin Din. I can’t believe it’s already December. And with a new month, we’ve got a new addition to the tech team.

A big welcome to REBECCA KERN, who has joined as a tech policy reporter. She will be covering the battles over online speech, misinformation and content moderation, as well as broader tech policy on Capitol Hill. She previously covered tech policy and cybersecurity issues at Bloomberg Government and helped write the tech and cyber newsletter there. Send scoops, tips and story ideas her way at [email protected] and @rebeccamkern on Twitter.

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

WHAT TELECOM WATCHERS HAVE BEEN WAITING FOR — Davidson has been nominated to lead the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (which hasn’t had a Senate-confirmed chief since 2019). But all the attention will likely be on Sohn, whose confirmation to the FCC would help secure a Democratic majority at the agency and get the ball rolling on progressive priorities like restoring net neutrality rules.

Not that conservatives have been united against her. Republican lawmakers have lashed out over her progressive views, but she has won the backing of leaders at conservative networks like Newsmax and One America News, given their shared concerns about larger media players. Davidson has attracted less criticism so far, and technologists including Vint Cerf lauded his “seasoned leadership and broad technical expertise.”

Sohn has “always been a strong defender of free speech and an advocate of robust, substantive debate,” Consumer Technology Association CEO Gary Shapiro told senators.

Contrast that with a letter today from right-leaning groups like the Americans for Tax Reform that paints Sohn as a “hyper-partisan activist.” Those groups are worried about a repeat of the White House’s “bait and switch” earlier this year, when Lina Khan was confirmed by the Senate as an FTC commissioner, only for President Joe Biden to name her FTC chair immediately after.

The League of United Latin American Citizens — which counts Verizon, AT&T, Charter Communications and Comcast among its corporate partners — also opposed Sohn’s nomination in a letter Tuesday, blasting her for being over friendly to big tech companies “in ways that have hindered small, independent Latino-owned media companies and has jeopardized Latino content creators.”

— And one new opponent: Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), the ranking member on the Judiciary intellectual property panel, asked Biden to withdraw Sohn’s nomination in a letter on the eve of her hearing, calling her an “anti-copyright activist.”

Frank Washington, founder and CEO of Asian American-focused TV network Crossings TV, also outlined copyright concerns, among others, in a letter this morning. He said he didn’t oppose her nomination but asked the committee to pause it for now.

Watch for questions about Sohn’s role as a board member of shuttered streaming service Locast and how she might tackle TV broadcaster issues. The National Association of Broadcasters, which successfully fought Locast in court, is pushing for more ethics disclosures from Sohn over this “inherent conflict” of interest. (Sohn has separately won backing from NAB board member Byron Allen.)

Senate Commerce ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) is expected to question Sohn over her past tweets about Republicans and press her on whether she can work in a bipartisan fashion. As for Davidson, Wicker will ask about legislation to reauthorize NTIA, a bill that he is expected to introduce alongside Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) before the hearing. (It would be the first reauthorization of the agency since 1992 and include improvements to interagency coordination.)

— And some votes, for good measure: Senators will also vote on the nominations of FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel for a new five-year term and privacy advocate Alvaro Bedoya for FTC commissioner.

LAY OF 230-LAND — Section 230 bills abound on the Hill, but House Energy and Commerce Democrats have selected four to focus on at today’s hearing of the communications and technology panel.

— Up for discussion: H.R. 2154 (117), the Protecting Americans from Dangerous Algorithms Act, which would strip Section 230 protections from platforms that use algorithms to promote content related to civil rights abuses and international terrorism; H.R. 3184 (117), the Civil Rights Modernization Act, which focuses on targeted ads that violate civil rights laws; and H.R. 3421 (117), the SAFE TECH Act, which would remove Section 230 protections for ads and other paid content, as well as activity violating civil rights, stalking and harassment laws, among other things.

Lawmakers will also consider H.R. 5596 (117), the Justice Against Malicious Algorithms Act, which was introduced in October by top House E&C Democrats. It would target companies that use algorithms to promote content that causes “physical or severe emotional injury.” The bill’s prominent backers include Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), who sets the committee’s legislative agenda.

— What to expect: None of these bills have Republican support. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are calling for changes to the statute, passed in 1996, but their motivations for doing so are drastically different. Republicans generally believe online platforms have weaponized Section 230 to silence conservatives, while Democrats say the companies are not doing enough to limit the spread of hate speech and misinformation.

“The Internet has grown substantially since 1996, and it is clear Big Tech has abused this power granted to them by Congress,” Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio), the subcommittee’s ranking member, will say, according to his prepared remarks. “They censor conservative voices and use algorithms to suppress content that does not fit their narrative.” He will highlight Republican efforts to reform Section 230 and concerns that Democrats’ legislation “could lead to unintended consequences, like curtailing free speech and innovation.”

— First in MT: Meanwhile, the Chamber of Progress, a tech industry group that represents Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Twitter, is calling on lawmakers to slow down before making any further changes to Section 230. The scope of the statute has only been amended once, and lawmakers should investigate the impact of that change first, CEO Adam Kovacevich said in a statement for the record.

That change, which became law in 2018 via legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA, sought to thwart online sex trafficking, but a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that federal prosecutors have rarely used the law since. Kovacevic urged lawmakers to pass a bill that would look at the “unintended consequences” of that change, such as on the working conditions of sex workers. “Congress must also examine how a seemingly narrow change to Section 230 created disastrous results for a platform’s ability to moderate dangerous and harmful content,” he added.

HAUGEN RETURNS TO THE HILL — Haugen’s second appearance before Congress, months after she turned over thousands of internal Facebook documents to lawmakers, shows that her work revealing the dangers and abuses of social media is likely far from over.

As debate around Section 230 unfolds, Haugen, one of 10 witnesses scheduled for the House E&C hearing, is warning lawmakers and the public against falling into “analysis paralysis.” “Facebook wants you to get caught up in a long, drawn out debate over the minutiae of different legislative approaches,” she said in her written testimony. “Please don’t fall into that trap.”

But the discussion today is likely to focus on more than Section 230 alone. Expect Facebook, specifically, to be a top target. “Facebook programs its algorithms to maximize profits, which means it decides which speakers are heard and which are not,” Haugen said in her testimony, which does not mention Section 230. “Facebook decides which content is seen by tens of millions and which is buried. The result is a system that amplifies division, extremism, and polarization. Facebook is running the show, whether we know it or not.”

Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) is expected to “go after [Facebook’s] blatant lying to Congress and the American people,” spokesperson Clarissa Rojas said, adding he would raise concerns about online Spanish-language misinformation.

— Where Haugen comes down on 230: At an October hearing, she told senators that Congress should amend the statute to hold companies accountable for their algorithms, which they have “100 percent control over,” rather than individual users’ posts. (Facebook has denied Haugen’s claims that it prioritizes profit over safety. It has also said it supports updates to Section 230, although one proposal it made earlier this year was panned by lawmakers as self-serving.)

PLUS: VACCINE MISINFO BACK IN THE SPOTLIGHT AS OMICRON SPREADS — D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine is kicking his investigation into Covid misinformation on Facebook up on a notch. As part of the probe into whether Facebook’s claims about its handling of coronavirus vaccine misinformation have violated consumer protection laws, Racine subpoenaed the company for relevant records in June. But his office said Tuesday that because the tech giant will not turn over ample details on that misleading material and efforts to combat it, the AG is now asking the court to enforce the subpoena.

For months, Facebook has “refused and actively ignored our attempts to find out what actions it is taking” to address the spread of Covid vaccine misinformation on the platform, spokesperson Abbie McDonough said. But Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said that “we are cooperating with Attorney General Racine, have offered to meet with him and his staff, and are producing documents, in accordance with our terms and applicable federal law.”

YOU WANT IN? — Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) are introducing a bill today — the Consumer OPT-IN Act — that would crack down on subscription-based companies that use free-trial scams and deceptive marketing practices to trick consumers into renewing or extending subscriptions.

MT MEA CULPA — Tuesday’s MT misstated the FCC’s broadband speed benchmark. It is 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload.

Ahmed Elsayed is rejoining Cárdenas’ office as chief of staff. He most recently was national press secretary for Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), and is a John Delaney alum. … Sarah-Lloyd Stevenson is now a senior manager and telehealth policy lead on Amazon’s public policy Americas team. She previously was a director at Faegre Drinker Consulting, and is a White House, HHS and Wicker alum. … David Marcus, who leads Meta’s fintech unit, Novi, and oversees the company’s cryptocurrency efforts, will step down at the end of the year. He previously oversaw Facebook Messenger and was president of PayPal. Stephane Kasriel, Novi’s VP of product, will replace him. … Bret Taylor has been named co-CEO of Salesforce, a day after he became chair of Twitter’s board.

SPOTTED: Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) met with Alphabet and Google CEO Sundar Pichai “to discuss maintaining U.S. leadership in breakthrough technologies.”

New frontiers: “Investors Snap Up Metaverse Real Estate in a Virtual Land Boom,” NYT reports.

Act now: More than 50 business leaders — including the CEOs of Alphabet, Apple, Cisco, Dell, IBM, Intel, Microsoft and Verizon — are urging Congress this morning to fund the CHIPS Act and enact an investment tax credit to boost the domestic semiconductor ecosystem.

ICYMI: “Cracks appear in West’s 5G strategy after Huawei,” via POLITICO’s Laurens Cerulus.

Warehouse woes: “Amazon Accused of Under-Reporting Covid Cases Contracted at Work,” Bloomberg reports.

New rules: “Twitter Bans Sharing of Private People’s Photos, Videos Without Consent,” via WSJ.

Extra protection: Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Lori Trahan (D-Mass.) introduced a bill Tuesday to protect whistleblowers at companies under the FTC’s jurisdiction.

SEE YOU TOMORROW!



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