Good morning! I’m Cat Zakrzewski, a tech policy reporter at The Washington Post. I’ll be at the helm of The Cybersecurity 202 this week. If you can’t get enough of Post newsletters, sign up here for my forthcoming newsletter, The Technology 202. You won’t want to miss our daily analysis on the complex relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley, coming to your inbox in December.
A note to readers this Thanksgiving week: Our indefatigable researcher, Bastien Inzaurralde, is on vacation. So we'll be bringing you an abbreviated newsletter this week and be fully back up to speed following the holidays.
Increased scrutiny of Facebook’s activities after a New York Times investigation into the company's damage-control tactics following the 2016 election is expected to spark more calls on Capitol Hill for tighter regulation of the tech giant as well as its chief competitors.
“It’s important for Facebook to recognize that this isn’t a public relations problem – it’s a fundamental challenge for the platform and their business model," Sen. Mark R. Warner (Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee that probed Russian influence in 2016, told me in an email. “ I think it took them too long to realize that. It’s clear that Congress can’t simply trust [Facebook] to address these issues on their own."
Last week, Senate Democrats led by Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) responded to the Times piece by sending a letter to the Justice Department calling for an investigation into potential campaign finance violations by Facebook. Another group of Senate Democrats, also led by Klobuchar, sent a letter to the company, pressing it on the reports.
The senators slammed Facebook’s relationship with the GOP firm Definers Public Affairs, which was exposed by the Times and performs opposition research on its clients' foes and then deploys the information in much the same way as a political campaign. The company severed its ties with Definers after the report.
“We are gravely concerned by recent reports indicating that your company used contractors to retaliate against or spread intentionally inflammatory information about your critics,” the senators wrote in the letter to Facebook.
Things may only get worse for Facebook -- and other tech companies -- when Democrats take control of the House come January.
There is growing bipartisan clamor for privacy legislation that would knit together a patchwork of state rules in the wake of new and strict European privacy rules aimed at protecting consumer information known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Earlier this year, Silicon Valley Rep. Ro Khanna (D) introduced an "Internet Bill of Rights," which shares some tenets with GDPR.
So far, Washington has been hesitant to slap major regulations on the tech industry -- and there will be limits on what is likely to get done because Republicans still control the Senate. But the Times report, as well as a slew of not-so-positive press for Facebook especially, is likely to increase calls from lawmakers in both parties to do something to protect consumer privacy and to mitigate the possibility of foreign political interference on their platforms.
Robert Atkinson, the founder and president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said the recent reports about Facebook’s political tactics and executive turmoil are leading to an “an inquisition in Washington.”
“There’s a feeding frenzy that’s going on,” he said. “It just keeps building upon itself.”.
Atkinson said the question isn't if there will be privacy legislation, it's whether legislation will be “light-touch” or a “whole-hog draconian” bill similar to the rules created by the European Union. Facebook's recent controversies could add pressure for lawmakers to lean in on tougher rules like GDPR.
“This will provide some motivation for comprehensive privacy legislation,” Atkinson said.
Attempts to rein the companies in -- such as political ad transparency legislation -- have so far stalled in Congress. Privacy regulation is expected to be a major priority for the next Congress, and Facebook's bargaining power may be hindered by the damage recent reports have dealt to its reputation in Washington.
It also remains to be seen whether the big tech companies will work together or against each other in shaping such policy.
Already, Apple chief executive Tim Cook has tried to shield his company from concerns about Silicon Valley’s growing power by coming out as a strong advocate for privacy legislation. Apple's business model relies more on selling ads and less on customer data, so it can advocate for tougher privacy rules without necessarily hurting its bottom line.
The Times reported that Cook’s attacks on other companies’ approach to privacy enraged Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, who ordered his top lieutenants to instead use Android phones. Facebook later said it does encourage its employees to use Android -- but only because it is the most popular operating system in the world.
Facebook itself engaged in finger-pointing tactics, the Times found. When top tech executives appeared before lawmakers in September, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg lobbied for a Google executive of similar stature to testify along with her. When Google failed to provide a senior enough executive, lawmakers left an empty chair for a Google executive — taking some of the public-relations glare off Facebook in the process.
The infighting among companies is one of the ways the technology industry significantly diverges from other industries such as pharmaceuticals or the auto industry when it comes to lobbying, Atkinson said. Because the tech companies have such different business models, there is rarely uniformity of views. Each company works in its own interests, and to harm competitors, he said.
“They’re using the opportunity for legislation and regulation as a strategic weapon against their competitors,” Atkinson said.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the European data protection rules. It is the General Data Protection Regulation, not Global Data Protection Regulation.
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