Congress still has questions for big tech CEOs

Congress still has questions for big tech CEOs

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With help from John Hendel and Leah Nylen

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— Tech CEO grilling continues: In follow-ups to their blockbuster antitrust hearing, House Judiciary members are demanding more answers from the chiefs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google about their data tactics, competitive conduct and content moderation practices.

— For Democrats and tech, hindsight is 2020: The lineup for this week’s virtual Democratic National Convention, featuring a slew of now prominent tech critics, highlights how far the party’s views on and relationship with Silicon Valley have changed since the last DNC in 2016.

— Fighting for broadband funds: FCC Chair Ajit Pai says Congress should look no further than his own agency in building out broadband subsidies — a sign of jurisdictional jockeying within the Trump administration between the FCC and USDA.

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FIRST IN MT: MORE Q’S FOR TECH CEOS — Members of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee said they walked away from last month’s historic tech hearing unimpressed by what they heard from the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Google. Now, they’re looking for more answers. In follow-up inquiries to Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Apple’s Tim Cook and Google’s Sundar Pichai, obtained or reviewed by MT, committee members are demanding additional information on everything from the companies’ business dealings to their content moderation practices. Here’s a breakdown:

— For Zuckerberg: Has Facebook buckled to bias complaints? Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland is asking whether the company has made any “concessions” to political officials or organizations “to address perceived political or ideological bias on Facebook.” And he wants to know whether pressure to tackle the bias charges has affected the company’s hiring. Republicans at the hearing aired allegations of an anti-GOP bias by the tech giants, which the companies flatly deny and Democrats dismiss as political theater.

— For Bezos: Can Amazon make sure its Covid-19 gear is safe and legit? Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado is pressing the Amazon chief to spell out how the company plans to “ensure the safety” of the personal protective equipment sold on its platform, writing that during the Covid-19 pandemic, “prices on e-commerce platforms for these desperately needed products have skyrocketed while e-commerce platforms have failed to guarantee product safety and have failed to remove counterfeit products.” Amazon has faced heightened pressure in Washington to crack down on fake goods, and particularly of medical tools, amid Covid-19.

— For Pichai: How are Google’s data practices affecting publishers? Raskin voices concern that Google and other major platforms can scrape “content from newspaper websites, host significant portions of news stories in their curated news service, and pass back none of the ad revenue they generate.” And he presses for more information on whether Google profits from the data it collects off scraped material without sharing any of it with publishers. Google (and Facebook’s) effect on the news industry has been a major focus of the subcommittee’s tech investigation.

— For Cook: How is Apple making money off iPhone location data? Buck wants to know “how frequently” iPhones report user location data to the company “for advertising purposes.” House Judiciary lawmakers have long voiced concern that the tech giants’ vast troves of user data give them a massive competitive edge over smaller rivals.

— Other lines of inquiry: Raskin asks whether Facebook will commit to “removing Holocaust denial content” on its platforms, and he has more questions about Amazon’s negotiations with WarnerMedia over its HBO Max service. Buck wants more information on Google’s potential dealings with the Chinese government.

DEMOCRATS AND SILICON VALLEY: WHAT A DIFFERENCE FOUR YEARS MAKE — When Hillary Clinton took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, it was a different era for the party’s relationship with Silicon Valley.

— Flashback: In her primetime speech, Clinton touted a 100-day plan to pass a major investment package focused in part on jobs in “technology and innovation.” It was her sole tech mention that night in Philadelphia, where few could have foreseen the reckoning looming over the industry’s handling of foreign meddling, user data and more. The party, after all, had for years cultivated a cozy relationship with industry leaders, seen as bastions of American innovation.

— Fast forward to 2020: Now, scrutiny of those same leaders and their companies has gone mainstream in the Democratic Party, with several of its top presidential contenders urging the government to break up the tech industry’s biggest companies or revoke its liability protections. This week’s virtual convention will feature speeches from some of the party’s harshest Silicon Valley critics, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) tonight, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on Wednesday. Even Clinton, slated to deliver a speech Wednesday, has grown increasingly blunt in her rebukes of Facebook and its peers.

— What’s changed: Democrats’ once-snug relationship with Silicon Valley has fractured over mounting concerns about misinformation and harmful content, privacy abuses, treatment of tech workers and allegations of anti-competitive conduct, ushering in a wave of calls for new regulation and stricter oversight.

— What hasn’t changed: Party leaders are still pushing for major government investments in key tech areas, much like Clinton in 2016. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden — who has skewered social media companies for tolerating political misinformation during the 2020 campaign — has pledged a $300 billion investment into research and development for 5G wireless technology and artificial intelligence.

How the party platform has changed on tech: In 2016, Democrats added an antitrust plank back into the platform for the first time since 1980. Back then, the party pledged to “make competition policy and antitrust stronger” by reinvigorating the FTC and DOJ. Today, their draft platform mentions neither agency, instead talking about reducing concentration in health care, agriculture and telecom — still with no word on tech. On privacy, Democrats’ 2016 platform focused on federal surveillance. Now in 2020, the platform calls for updating the Obama-era Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and “adding strong national standards” to protect against data breaches.

— Meanwhile: The Trump campaign is hoping to flood the web this week with a massive counterprogramming advertising blitz that its digital director boasts has “Unheard of scale & saturation.” According to The New York Times, “the Trump campaign will be taking over the banner of YouTube for 96 hours starting on Tuesday, the second day of the convention, an expensive and far-reaching digital gambit.”

PAI TO CONGRESS: LET FCC LEAD ON BROADBAND — Pai is offering a suggestion to lawmakers: Perhaps forget about loading the Department of Agriculture with cash to subsidize broadband buildout and supply the FCC with those funds instead?

If the goal is to avoid overbuilding and other duplicative efforts, Congress should allocate funding solely to one agency — the FCC, which has long been primarily responsible for promoting broadband deployment in the United States,” Pai told Senate Commerce Chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) in his written responses to the panel following a June 24 oversight hearing.

— Pai’s recommendation comes as many lawmakers look to USDA as a natural place to run broadband subsidy programs, even as the FCC runs its own universal service subsidy fund of many billions of dollars. House appropriators are this year proposing to expand USDA’s ReConnect broadband program, clearing legislation through the chamber to give the department hundreds of millions of dollars.

— But the Pai exchange underscores jurisdictional administration jockeying on broadband, which will be worth watching if Congress ever reaches a bigger deal on infrastructure and amid Covid-19 connectivity discussions.

TECH QUOTE DU JOUR — “Whatever.” That’s how President Donald Trump responded on Friday when asked by reporters about the concerns voiced by other U.S. companies that his executive order against TikTok and WeChat could undermine their business interests. “I’ve got to do what’s good in terms of the security of our country,” he continued. Later Friday, Trump hit TikTok parent-company ByteDance yet again, issuing an executive order that gives it 90 days to divest its U.S. operations.

— But wait, there’s more: “President Donald Trump said on Saturday he could exert pressure on more Chinese companies such as technology giant Alibaba after he moved to ban TikTok,” via Reuters.

— Related reading: “President Donald Trump has joined Triller, a rival to the video sharing app TikTok that he wants ban in the US,” via The Verge.

— “Mark Zuckerberg’s effort to disrupt philanthropy has a race problem,” via WaPo.

— “An Uber and Lyft shutdown in California looks inevitable — unless voters bail them out,” via The Verge.

— “The week QAnon went mainstream,” via NYT Opinion.

— “Meet the politician who lives on TikTok,” via POLITICO Magazine.

— “Facebook’s hate-speech rules collide with Indian politics,” via WSJ.

— “White House plans to boost AI, quantum funding by 30%,” via WSJ.

— “CenturyLink settles U.S. allegations it violated terms of Level 3 acquisition,” via Reuters.

— “Debunking 3 viral falsehoods about Kamala Harris,” via NYT.

— “Retailers launch lobbying group to fight counterfeit goods on Amazon,” via Bloomberg.

Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Bob King ([email protected], @bkingdc), Heidi Vogt ([email protected], @HeidiVogt), Nancy Scola ([email protected], @nancyscola), Steven Overly ([email protected], @stevenoverly), John Hendel ([email protected], @JohnHendel), Cristiano Lima ([email protected], @viaCristiano), Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected], @Ali_Lev), and Leah Nylen ([email protected], @leah_nylen).





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