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— Open internet tussling is back: California and Biden administration officials are negotiating how to ensure a key telehealth app reaches veterans across the nation, which could shape upcoming federal net neutrality fights.
— New today: Tech companies are launching a coalition urging Democrats to preserve the good parts of Silicon Valley as policymakers contemplate fixes.
— Infrastructure incoming: Watch for the White House to unveil new details on its vision for broadband investments as the president heads to Pittsburgh this week.
WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! John Hendel filling in for Alex today and still riding high off beautiful Saturday weather as D.C. enters spring (less exciting: the first sunburn of 2021).
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NET NEUTRALITY SCRAMBLE SPELLS FIGHTS TO COME — The Biden administration and California attorney general’s office are now trying to hash out how to resolve lingering uncertainty about the operation of a telehealth app called VA Video Connect, the AG’s office tells MT. As your host reported, the federal Veterans Affairs Department last week raised concerns about the app’s future because wireless carriers subsidize its data usage costs for veterans in ways that a new California net neutrality law forbids (a situation, ISPs say, that could imperil offerings beyond just California).
— The 2018 California law finally became enforceable Thursday amid hot tempers around the concerns, which some net neutrality advocates dismiss as manufactured controversy. Carriers worked out their initial agreement with the VA regarding this app in 2019 and have spent the past two years challenging the law.
— “Carriers are using veterans as pawns,” Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld argued in a recent blog post, insisting that ISPs could take advantage of the law’s flexibility to discount data use costs for a whole “category” of such applications without concern. Stanford Law School’s Barbara van Schewick similarly pushed back, saying carriers have plenty of options to still connect veterans and that “California’s net neutrality law is not the problem here.”
— Don’t tell that to the wireless giants: T-Mobile told MT that its “ability to zero rate this application and ensure this critical service remains available is now in danger” and that it’s working “closely” with the government and VA “to do the right thing here, which is to continue to offer these needed services.” AT&T, too, told MT it’s still reviewing whether it can keep offering this service under California law. “This confusion and potential unintended harmful consequence is an example of the need for a rational, uniform, consumer-friendly federal regulatory framework that applies equally to all in the internet ecosystem,” AT&T added.
Advocates broadly dispute the need for any of these so-called free data offerings because they say wireless giants shouldn’t cap consumers’ data at all. The AG’s office is eyeing what’s permissible now and maintains that ISPs could provide additional data to veterans to allow them to access telehealth services through the VA or other providers without cost. Feld himself acknowledged the law’s newness means there are still questions about just how carriers define a “category” of services.
— Although the Biden administration, California and carriers may hash out a resolution, expect these debates to fuel plenty of lobbying around Democrats’ likely revival of national open internet protections and how potential federal rules deal with these zero-rated services. The repealed Obama-era FCC rules had considered such instances of zero rating on a case-by-case basis, which the telecom industry also didn’t love.
The White House isn’t commenting on any ongoing talks, but President Joe Biden’s top tech advisers are likely to be invested. The National Economic Council’s Tim Wu originally coined the “net neutrality” label years ago and in a since-deleted tweet from last year, he remarked that “terrible broadband performance and suspicions of throttling make me want to rewage the Net Neutrality wars all over again.” And the GOP is welcoming the political fight, which is drawing the eyes of top Republicans including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who called his state’s law “restrictive” and “overreaching.”
NEW COALITION WANTS TO REMIND DEMOCRATS OF TECH’S GOOD SIDE — A new left-leaning tech coalition is coming to town. The “Chamber of Progress” — which includes backing from Amazon, Automattic, Facebook, DoorDash, Getaround, Grubhub, Google, Instacart, Lime, Twitter, Uber, Waymo, Wing and Zillow, although these corporate partners lack seats on the group’s board or voting power — is intended to mix more business-friendly tech advocacy with support for a broader range of Democratic priorities across issues like voting rights, progressive taxation and climate change.
— Between the lines: The coalition is emerging right when some top progressives are embracing more aggressive solutions to tech industry woes, such as splitting up the big companies. The Chamber of Progress, which hopes to build relationships with those on Capitol Hill as well as on the state and local level, will ramp up public advocacy and speaking engagements and is already in dialogue with the more moderate House New Democrat Coalition.
— The tech coalition’s new face: Adam Kovacevich, a veteran of Google and Lime, is the group’s founder and CEO and wants to help temper the discussion around potential tech regulation. “This is an idea that’s been rattling around in my brain for two or three years, but which I only started working on in the last couple of months,” Kovacevich told your MT host. “Tech went from its honeymoon phase to leaving its dirty laundry on the floor and politicians threatening a divorce. The next stage of the relationship is going to be about relationship counseling.”
— And what about last week’s marathon grilling of Silicon Valley CEOs? “What you see there is there are actually more policymakers who want the industry to use its role for good than to break up the companies,” Kovacevich argued. He says most Democrats are not “reflexively anti-business” and laments the “over-correction” among policymakers in bringing the hammer down on tech giants over the last five or so years, even as he concedes mistakes the industry and his coalition wants to address. A new website details the group’s advisory board and mission statement.
The GOP commonly dings the tech industry for leaning ideologically left, in line with this coalition’s explicit focus, but Kovacevich was quick to note that not all the corporate partners will agree with its efforts 100 percent of the time, that the corporations support a broad ideological mix of groups and that the platforms would say such support doesn’t influence content decisions.
AND FINALLY, INFRASTRUCTURE WEEK — Watch this week for Biden to unveil new details of his economic revival package focused on infrastructure, as White House press secretary Jen Psaki noted in a Fox News appearance on Sunday. “The total package we are still working out,” she added. What Biden announces will dictate the next steps in Capitol Hill’s tussling over potential broadband investments, which has dominated both chambers in recent weeks.
— Biden himself alluded to the likely tech components of this infrastructure boost during his press conference last week, telling reporters that “the next major initiative … is to rebuild the infrastructure, both physical and technological infrastructure in this country” and promising to outline details during a Wednesday event in Pittsburgh. During last week’s news conference, Biden also name-checked quantum computing and artificial intelligence, saying he wants to dramatically ramp up U.S. investments in such tech arenas to compete with China.
LATEST ON THE GLOBAL DIGITAL TAX FIGHT — The Information Technology Industry Council, which represents major U.S. tech firms, is glad to see U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai moving forward with seeking comment on potential trade penalties for foreign governments (like in the U.K., Austria, India and Spain) attempting to levy digital service taxes against U.S. companies.
— “The harmful fragmentation caused by the growing adoption of such tax measures extends globally and compromises the ability for all companies to do business across borders,” ITI President Jason Oxman said in a statement, urging the foreign governments to withdraw the measures.
— Per USTR: Tai says that while the Biden administration wants to reach global consensus on these digital tax concerns, officials plan to “maintain our options,” including the potential for levying counter tariffs, until then. USTR killed four of the investigations into earlier digital tax moves in Brazil, the Czech Republic, the European Union and Indonesia given those jurisdictions aren’t moving forward.
Facebook announces completion of a phase of fiber network building across Indiana.
Head in the cloud: “Adam Selipsky will see some familiar faces when he returns to Amazon to lead its cloud division,” per CNBC. Jeff Bezos, meanwhile, may be the man encouraging Amazon’s recent Twitter sparring, via Recode.
Putting away the sweatpants: “Facebook, Microsoft and Uber have announced plans to reopen offices on a limited basis, as the spread of the coronavirus pandemic continues to slow,” NPR reports.
ICYMI: A veteran Waze exec talks about life post-Google acquisition.
Facebook vs. the president: “Facebook has frozen Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s page for violating policies against spreading misinformation about COVID-19 by promoting a remedy he claims, without evidence, can cure the disease,” via Reuters.
Space broadband for Space Force: “The U.S. Space Force last week asked satellite internet companies for updates on the performance and capabilities of their networks,” Space News writes.
Life sans cyber czar: “The role, known officially as the national cyber director, remains unfilled two months into Joe Biden’s presidency despite a legal mandate that it be occupied,” POLITICO reports.
Hungry for delivery fees: “NBC News found that DoorDash added supplemental local fees in 57 of the 68 locations that have fee caps, far more than have previously been reported,” per the outlet.
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