May 8, 2021

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Congress vs. Tech CEOs, Take 4


With help from Cristiano Lima and John Hendel

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— How to pronounce Pichai: You wouldn’t know after Thursday’s tech CEO tongue-lashing in Congress, where members started to lay out their legislative plans for kids’ online safety and Section 230 reform.

— Parler pushes back: Republicans again decried the tech giants for deplatforming Parler after the Twitter alternative revealed that it had warned the FBI about potential violence ahead of the January Capitol riot.

— Auto airwaves scuffle: Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said he is “concerned” about an FCC plan to open up spectrum normally dedicated to auto safety tech.

FRI-YAY! WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your guest host, Leah Nylen. RIP Lucille Bluth.

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TAKEAWAYS FROM TECH’S LATEST CLASH WITH CONGRESS — Spicy subtweets and a blockchain clock. Questions about whether the CEOs had been vaccinated or seen “The Social Dilemma.” Thursday’s hearing with some of Silicon Valley’s most influential leaders, like their other outings, had a little bit of everything. But if you listened closely, you might have just heard the beginnings of some legislative plans. Here are our top takeaways from the session with Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sundar Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.

— Conviction from Democratic leaders in the House: Top Democrats on the House Energy & Commerce Committee sounded more determined than ever to advance legislation to rein in the social media companies. In a notable escalation from his past rhetoric, Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) opened the hearing by forcefully vowing to move ahead on legislation to discourage companies from amplifying hate speech, extremism and disinformation. “The time for self-regulation is over,” he said. “It is time we legislate to hold you accountable.”

— GOP zeroes in on kids’ safety, an area of bipartisan concern: While Republicans repeatedly raised allegations of anti-conservative bias on social media, GOP leaders appeared just as determined — if not more — to voice concerns about kids’ online safety. Three of the panel’s Republican leaders dove into the topic in their opening remarks, and numerous other members on both sides of the aisle weaved the topic into their questions and comments. Unlike bias charges, that’s one area where Democrats and Republicans can often agree.

— A fuzzy yet fraught future for Section 230: The tech CEOs offered several ideas for tweaking Section 230 — Zuckerberg chief among them. But that did little to satisfy lawmakers, who said they are eyeing broader changes than the tech industry may be comfortable with. Still, the panel has some big questions it needs to sort out: Do they want to target liability for certain types of content, or for how content is amplified? If the former, will it focus on civil rights abuses, extremism, child exploitation, or something else? And wherever they land, can they win over Republicans, including in the Senate?

— Tech’s frustrations on display: The hearing featured possibly the most visible display of a tech CEO’s frustrations with congressional questioning to date. About two-and-half hours into the session, @jack trolled members of Congress who kept demanding yes-or-no questions from the moguls by tweeting out a yes-or-no poll as he testified. (Lawmakers noticed.) He later doubled-down on his sassy subtweeting, sharing a post that read, “It would be awesome if some Member engaged @jack in a substantive discussion on Twitter’s ‘protocols’ idea. It could achieve a lot of what they’re aiming for,” tweeted Adam Kovacevich, formerly of Google and Lime. “Agreed,” Dorsey added.

— Lawmakers need to learn to pronounce ‘Pichai’: It’s not hard, folks.

— For our full coverage of the hearing, check out Cristiano’s key moments.

PARLER: WE WARNED THE FBI ABOUT JAN. 6 The social networking site told members of Congress Thursday that it referred to the FBI dozens of violent threats and incitement of organized violence at the U.S. Capitol ahead of the Jan. 6 riot. In a letter to House Oversight Chair Carolyn Maloney, a lawyer for the Twitter alternative said the company repeatedly warned law enforcement about the potential for violence. Parler said it has been unfairly scapegoated for the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, despite the fact that much more planning and incitement happened on Facebook and Twitter.

— Republicans were quick to call foul. Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), the top Republican on House Oversight, accused “Democrats and their Big Tech allies” of exploiting the Capitol attack to muzzle conservative viewpoints. The Internet Accountability Project, a conservative tech critic, said Parler’s letter made clear its deplatforming was based on “a bogus, pretextual excuse by three trillion-dollar Big Tech monopolists (Google, Apple, and Amazon) to kill a competitor of Twitter (another Big Tech monopolist).”

BUTTIGIEG EXPRESSES ‘CONCERN’ OVER FCC AUTO AIRWAVES VOTE — The Transportation secretary told House lawmakers on Thursday that he, like his Trump-era predecessor and members of the panel, isn’t happy with FCC commissioners’ November vote to carve up the 5.9 GHz band. That swath of airwaves was traditionally reserved for auto safety tech like communications between emergency vehicles and traffic lights, but the agency reserved a cut for Wi-Fi use and added flexibility to what types of safety tech could be used.

— “We share that concern,” Buttigieg told House Transportation Chair Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), who previously raised the issue with the secretary. “We’re going to be engaging with counterparts across the administration on a way forward and trying to establish the best way to handle and share the spectrum that is consistent with not just safety communications as we know them but where they’re headed.”

— Industry parties and lawmakers are still tussling over the FCC ruling, with several advocacy groups urging the Biden administration to let the decision stand rather than attempt to override it, as some auto interests want. Former FCC Chair Ajit Pai defended what he emphasized was a unanimous vote among his colleagues, although Jessica Rosenworcel, now acting head of the FCC, and her Democratic colleague had only concurred, citing reservations from DOT (not to mention the Senate Commerce Committee’s top Democrat).

SALLET FOR ANTITRUST CHIEF? — POLITICO’s Betsy Woodruff Swan and I had a scoop out late Thursday: Jonathan Sallet, lately of the Colorado Attorney General’s office, is being vetted for a top competition job in the Biden administration. The news drew some immediate plaudits: Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) called Sallet “a tremendous talent and one of the smartest people I know.”

First in MT: Speaking of moves: Avery Gardiner of the Center for Democracy and Technology will be joining the staff of Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary antitrust panel. Gardiner, an alumna of the DOJ’s antitrust division, will take on the role of Klobuchar’s chief counsel for competition and tech policy starting next month.

FACEBOOK-GIPHY ON THE ROCKS — Facebook will have a week to offer concessions to U.K. regulators after they said Thursday that social network’s acquisition of GIF library Giphy raises competition concerns. The United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority said that before the deal, Facebook and Giphy competed for some paid partnerships with brands like Pepsi and Dunkin’ Donuts. The regulator also expressed concerns that Facebook would cut off Giphy’s usage on other platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. The FTC, New York’s attorney general and Australian enforcers are also investigating the deal.

BUCK: NEW AGENCY ‘NON-STARTER’ FOR GOP — Colorado Rep. Ken Buck, the top Republican on House Judiciary’s antitrust panel, said creating a new agency to deal with digital platforms is a “non-starter for Republicans.”

“The biggest fear for conservatives is we create another CFPB,” Buck said, referring to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Speaking at the American Bar Association’s Antitrust Spring Meeting, Buck said he is on-board with antitrust Chair David Cicilline’s plan to pass a series of antitrust bills to avoid giving the tech giant’s one target for opposition.

UBER’S WEST: ANTITRUST ‘IS NOT VALUE NEUTRAL’ — Uber’s Tony West backed acting FTC Chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter’s recent push for antitrust enforcers to be more conscious of how their work can impact racial equity. “Value judgments are always exercised when it comes to the application of the law,” West said at another ABA panel Thursday. (West served as a top DOJ official under President Barack Obama and is also Vice President Kamala Harris’ brother-in-law)

About those Amazon pee bottles: They’re real, according to Vice and The Intercept, despite what Amazon PR says.

Boy bye: Twitter super-user Chrissy Teigen has left the platform, the Washington Post reports. (And if you missed her goodbye thread, the Wayback Machine has got you.)

Content moderation update: Substack says it won’t allow harassment, threats, doxxing or serious attacks on people based on race or other protected categories on its platform.

Retaliation is also illegal in tweet form: Labor officials ordered Tesla to have Technoking Elon Musk delete a 2018 tweet threatening workers who sought to unionize, Protocol reports.

Digital detox orders: Judges have ordered some defendants from the Jan. 6 Capitol riots to stay off the internet, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Broadband expansion: USTelecom’s CEO says Congress needs to overhaul the Universal Service Fund. Meanwhile, AT&T pushes back on calls to “future-proof” broadband by increasing the minimum speed.

Auschwitz reviews: Google pledges to “do better” after antisemitic comments were found on Google Maps reviews of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, The Guardian reports.

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

Have a great weekend!