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May 13, 2021

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Tech CEOs testify: Same old, or whole new world?


With help from Cristiano Lima, Mark Scott, Caitlin Oprysko, John Hendel and Julia Arciga

Editor’s Note: Morning Tech is a free version of POLITICO Pro Technology’s morning newsletter, which is delivered to our subscribers each morning at 6 a.m. The POLITICO Pro platform combines the news you need with tools you can use to take action on the day’s biggest stories. Act on the news with POLITICO Pro.

— Will this tech CEO hearing be different from the others? House leaders say today’s session will do more than serve up familiar talking points — pledging this time to legislate.

— Lobbying fears loom: Big Tech is outspending Big Oil and Big Tobacco on lobbying in Washington, raising concerns from progressive watchdogs that they’ll spend their way out of the regulatory crosshairs.

— If I had $6 billion dollars: More than a dozen Senate Democrats are introducing legislation to tack on $6 billion more to the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit program.

IT’S THURSDAY; WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.

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‘TODAY IS THE BEGINNING’ — We’ve seen it all before: A congressional panel is hauling the CEOs of some of the world’s most influential tech companies to answer for their purported misdeeds. But House Energy and Commerce leaders say this time, things will be different: They are serious about legislating around issues of online extremism, including by targeting tech’s liability shield, Section 230.

“This is not a hearing just to hear the same old thing,” Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.) told Cristiano ahead of the session. “We want to know what we can do legislatively. We want to pass laws.”

— How Democrats will approach the session: Pallone said he wants the panel to focus on finding ways to “disincentivize” platforms from profiting off misinformation. “They’re allowing this disinformation to spread, and they’re actually amplifying it and spreading it themselves, and so that’s what I want to get at,” he said. And he said scrutinizing their financial incentives — namely, advertising revenue — is a key target. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), another panel leader, likewise vowed action. “We are done with conversation,” she told reporters this week. “We are now moving ahead with regulation and legislation.”

— How Republicans will approach the session: The minority has been fielding complaints about the social media companies from constituents across the country, and they’re expected to highlight those qualms for the hearing. Twitter’s permanent ban of former President Donald Trump is likely to dominate their questions, but Facebook and Google will also have to answer for their own indefinite suspensions of Trump.

— How the CEOs’ ideas will be received: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is slated to make his most detailed suggestions to date for how to tweak Section 230, as Cristiano reported. But lawmakers aren’t sold on Zuck’s plans. “It almost seems like he wants to give the impression that he wants reform, but when you get to specifics, it’s not at all clear,” Pallone said. Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) called the plan a “masterful distraction.” (More on the blowback here.) Like before, Twitter’s Jack Dorsey and Google’s Sundar Pichai will urge restraint in targeting the law.

FACEBOOK SUPREME COURT’S NEXT BIG BATTLE (NOT THAT ONE) — Roughly one month out from the Facebook Oversight Board’s ruling on whether to let Trump back onto the platform, a wider battle is already swirling around the group of outside experts: Can they create a global standard for free speech on the world’s largest social network? My Europe-based colleague Mark Scott delves into that fight in Digital Bridge, POLITICO’s transatlantic tech newsletter, speaking to those involved in the Board’s work as well as vocal critics and content experts.

— “The Board is applying international human rights law to Facebook as if it was a country. That’s impossible,” Evelyn Douek, an online content expert at Harvard, told Mark. “It’s the first body that’s using international human rights law to make content decisions. Now that we’re getting down to brass tacks, it’s difficult.”

PLUS: BIG TECH SPENDING IN WASHINGTON SURPASSES BIG OIL, TOBACCO — Ahead of today’s hearing, watchdog group Public Citizen put out an update to its 2019 report on Big Tech’s influence in Washington. Key findings, per my colleague Caitlin Oprysko, include that the industry spent $124 million on lobbying and campaign contributions during the 2020 cycle, shattering its own records. Facebook and Amazon topped all other corporations in lobbying spending last year — that means the major oil and tobacco giants — while the four big tech companies (including Apple and Google) have expanded their lobbying footprint by 40 lobbyists since 2018.

— “The Big Four have learned to use their concentrated wealth to entrench their economic power through political engagement,” said Public Citizen Executive Vice President Lisa Gilbert. “In this moment of enhanced scrutiny, tech companies are going to spend millions and dial through their Rolodexes looking for officials to stop regulation and legislation needed to protect consumers.” Check out the full report here.

— Eyeballs watching emoji: Rep. Ken Buck, the top Republican on the House Judiciary antitrust panel, pledged Wednesday to stop accepting cash contributions from tech giants. “I will no longer accept campaign donations from Facebook, Google, or Amazon,” he said on Twitter. “I WILL hold Big Tech accountable.”

BROADBAND LAND: DEMOCRATS WANT $6B MORE FOR EMERGENCY INTERNET PROGRAM — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and more than a dozen Democratic colleagues are filing legislation today that would authorize another $6 billion to bolster the FCC’s upcoming Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which aims to provide a $50 monthly subsidy for consumers struggling with their monthly internet bill during the pandemic. Congress initially slated $3.2 billion for the project.

— More than 380 broadband providers have signed up to participate, acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel told the National Association of Counties on Wednesday, asking local officials to help “get the word out” about the effort. Commissioners hope to launch the program by the end of next month.

GOOGLE, ASKED ABOUT ANTITRUST, PUMPS THE BRAKES — A Google official went on the defensive at an antitrust conference on Wednesday when pressed about the prospect of regulators unwinding mergers that previously got the green light — a topic the company has otherwise remained tight-lipped on. We’ve long heard a “break up” of Google and its products floated as a potential remedy for competitive concerns about the tech giant; Google has been worried about the possibility of Google Chrome, online ad company DoubleClick, mobile advertising company Admob or Waze being broken off.

— “One has to be careful about second guessing investigations that happened at the time of the merger. … The investigations are rigorous [and] looking back, one has to be humble about when the transaction took place,” Markham Erickson, vice president of public policy at Google’s Centers for Excellence, said during an ABA Spring Antitrust Meeting panel. “After a long time, the competitive dynamics change. … That’s the nature of tech. It’s very hard to continue success without constantly innovating.”

— Klo says: Senate Judiciary Antitrust Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) said at that same ABA meeting that Google’s reaction to Australia’s proposed media law (which would make the company pay local publishers for their content) had given “legs” to her journalism competition bill, S. 673. “Google was able to hold a whole country hostage,” she said. “When that happened, the whole world saw it. … I’d watch that. That really seemed to be picking up speed.” Klobuchar said at a later event that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell still supports the bill.

The Aspen Institute announced a new Commission on Information Disorder focused on countering mis- and disinformation in America. Leaders include former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency chief Chris Krebs; members include Prince Harry and Facebook’s former security chief Alex Stamos.

Kylin McCardle, former director of consumer regulatory policy and affairs at Citi, has joined Amazon Web Services as senior manager for financial services public policy. … Julia Lawless, former managing director for strategic communications at Financial Services Forum and a Senate Finance Committee alum, is now senior manager for policy communications at Amazon.

On algorithmic amplification: “Lawyers, judges and lawmakers are advancing a bold idea: The powerful algorithms used by Facebook, YouTube and Twitter could make them complicit in offline crimes,” via NYT.

While you were remote: One year into the pandemic, tech’s shadow workforce — the custodians, drivers and other workers who kept tech campuses running — still face “an existential threat to their livelihoods,” WIRED reports.

Spotted: Facebook said Wednesday it had taken down “a network of China-based accounts being used to spread malware meant to spy on journalists and dissidents in the overseas Uyghur Muslim community,” WSJ reports.

Anime and antitrust collide: Sony’s ambitions to beat out Amazon and Netflix in the anime market is being delayed by a DOJ antitrust probe into a deal between Sony and AT&T’s WarnerMedia, The Information reports.

Name to know: Xiaomi, “the new Chinese smartphone king” that’s threatening Huawei, WSJ reports.

ICYMI: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) isn’t fully on board with Twitter’s decision to ban Trump. “I don’t feel comfortable about that,” Sanders told NYT.

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).



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