Google chief executive Sundar Pichai is in the hot seat on Capitol Hill tomorrow. But the hearing will also be a test for lawmakers.
Previous high-profile hearings with Silicon Valley executives have revealed lawmakers’ own knowledge gaps about how technology services work and make money. Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s April testimony, for instance, highlighted how some didn’t have a grasp on how social networks work.
As The Washington Post's humor columnist Alexandra Petri wrote at the time:
senator: my aides have given me this complex multi-part question to read to you in a halting and uncertain voice— Alexandra Petri (@petridishes) April 10, 2018
zuckerberg: oh no don't worry about that, our new motto is 'we fixed it'
senator: that sounds wrong but i don't know what to ask
Tuesday's House Judiciary Committee hearing with Google, under fire from some Republican lawmakers who allege the search engine has anti-conservative bias, may be an even bigger challenge, according to Drew Margolin, a Cornell University professor.
“After Congress struggled to understand how Facebook operated, and thus what its responsibilities ought to be, we should expect even more confusion in testimony from Google,” Margolin, who studies the way people communicate online, said in an email. “Social networks sites are a recent invention, but the basic concept of what they do is intuitive to human beings, whereas search engines are much more complex, which makes their public responsibility much harder to gauge.”
Lawmakers are promising to get tougher on Big Tech, but the gulf of technical knowledge between the Beltway and Silicon Valley may stand in the way. For years, technologists have pointed to what they see as uninformed remarks as a major impediment to engaging with Washington — arguing that politicians may hold back innovation if they attempt to regulate services they don’t understand.
Now that tech leaders are at the table, lawmakers are under more pressure to get up to speed and actually hold them accountable. Especially since lawmakers are promising to tackle a broad swath of tech issues next Congress, including the spread of disinformation campaigns online, election security and consumer privacy.
The proof will be in the pudding on Tuesday, since some Republicans make serious allegations against Google. Even President Trump tweeted that Google’s search results were “RIGGED, for me & others, so that almost all stories & news is BAD" over the summer. Trump's top economic adviser said the administration was looking into whether the tech titan’s search results should be regulated, stoking concerns on both sides of the aisle -- and in Silicon Valley.
The company has denied the charges of bias. As my colleague Tony Romm noted, the issue is complex: "Google processes 90 percent of searches globally, and its powerful algorithms return results based on their calculated relevance, a process Google portrays as neutral. Google takes into account signals including a user’s geographic location and browsing history, which is why Trump’s search results look different from what another user might see. Social media platforms differ from a search because information on social media is circulated through friends and brands that users choose to follow."
Since the Office of Personnel Management breach was announced in 2015, members of Congress have had to tackle technology issues with increasing frequency, says James Norton, a former Department of Homeland Security official focused on legislative affairs. But he says senior members of Congress on both sides of the aisle aren't owning technology issues. “Members are still pretty unprepared on most of the committees,” Norton said. “We keep seeing the can being kicked.”
But some in the technology industry say Silicon Valley could do more to bridge this gap. Microsoft President Brad Smith is meeting with lawmakers to talk about regulating facial-recognition technology, and he said people in the tech sector make the mistake of underestimating how knowledgeable people in government have become about technology issues.
“If people don’t know everything they need to know, it’s not because they’re not curious, it’s not because they’re not smart,” Smith said. “It’s because nobody shared the information with them. So let’s share the information so we can all talk together with the right comparable level of knowledge.”
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BITS: Dozens of companies are receiving people's precise location data via apps on their phones, and they’re selling it or using it to gain insights into consumer behavior, according to the New York Times's Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, Natasha Singer, Michael H. Keller and Aaron Krolik. Even though the companies say the location data is anonymous and not tied to a person’s name or phone number, the Times reporters say employees or clients with access to the raw data could still identify a person without their permission. The reporters proved it by tying anonymized location data from a database of more than a million phones to a New York woman without knowing her name.
It’s not a surprise to most consumers that their location data is being collected by services on their phones, but the Times reports “ as smartphones have become ubiquitous and technology more accurate, an industry of snooping on people’s daily habits has spread and grown more intrusive.” From advertisers to hedge funds, many businesses want a piece of the $21 billion location-targeted ad market. The Times found the explanations of how companies use and sell the data are often buried in lengthy privacy policies.
“Location information can reveal some of the most intimate details of a person’s life — whether you’ve visited a psychiatrist, whether you went to an A.A. meeting, who you might date,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) told the Times. Wyden has proposed bills to curb the collection and sale of location data.
NIBBLES: The Justice Department is investigating fake comments about net neutrality that were posted on the Federal Communications Commission's website starting in April 2017, BuzzFeed News reports. Two organizations told BuzzFeed News's Kevin Collier and Jeremy Singer-Vine that they received subpoenas from the FBI. “More than 20 million comments have since appeared on the site, with the New York attorney general’s office estimating that up to 9.5 million of those were filed in people’s names without their consent,” Collier and Singer-Vine wrote.
The Justice Department isn't acting alone — the New York attorney general's office has also been probing the matter. BuzzFeed News also reported that the offices of the attorneys general of Massachusetts and the District are supporting the New York state investigation. The two organizations that received subpoenas from the FBI “had previously been subpoenaed by New York and said the scope of those subpoenas were similar,” according to Collier and Singer-Vine.
BYTES: The electric-scooter winter is here. Companies Bird and Lime have scaled back their valuation goals as investors' enthusiasm subsides, according to the Wall Street Journal's Eliot Brown, Greg Bensinger and Katie Roof. Bird “is planning to take on more investment at its current $2 billion valuation” and Lime told “investors it expects to raise at a valuation of between $2 billion and $3 billion, below the roughly $4 billion it previously indicated to investors it was seeking,” the Journal reported.
The companies also face additional hurdles such as vandalism as well as competition. “One issue is scooters not designed for heavy use are breaking down quickly,” the Journal reported. “In some markets, scooters last about two months, investors said, often less time than it takes to recoup the purchase cost. Another is vandalism, glorified on social media through video clips of people knocking over rows of scooters or throwing them off parking garages.” Nevertheless, Bird and Lime's “valuations are still lofty—neither company is yet two years old—and the industry has plenty of backers."
— The race between Uber and Lyft to go public heated up as Uber confidentially filed paperwork with the Securities and Exchange Commission on Thursday for an initial public offering, the New York Times's Mike Isaac, Kate Conger and Erin Griffith reported. Lyft also announced Thursday that it had confidentially filed a draft registration statement with the SEC to go public. “Each company is rushing to beat the other to the public markets in the first half of next year amid a fair climate for technology I.P.O.s and worries of a potential economic recession."
Uber is a larger company than Lyft, but as the Wall Street Journal's Greg Bensinger and Maureen Farrell noted, both firms are unprofitable. “For its presentations to potential investors, Uber is likely to emphasize the success of its side projects such as prepared-food-delivery unit UberEats and trucking business Freight, people familiar with the matter have said,” they wrote. “It operates in about 70 countries world-wide, while Lyft is just in the U.S. and Canada.”
— Medical cannabis businesses in Maryland seek to navigate the gray areas of Facebook and Instagram's guidelines to avoid losing their accounts. Both platforms allow education and advocacy for marijuana but ban content that promotes marijuana sales, The Washington Post's Steve Thompson reported. “That means no advertising discounts or listing prices, nor mentioning there is product for sale,” my colleague wrote. “The platforms prohibit marijuana dispensaries from providing their phone numbers or street addresses.” Medical cannabis sales started a year ago in Maryland.
Steve found that Instagram shut down five accounts that should have remained online. “The Washington Post sent Instagram 16 accounts created by Maryland cannabis sellers that had been wiped out for supposed violations,” he wrote. “The company responded that 11 had been appropriately removed. But five had been shut down in error, and the company restored them Thursday.”
— A report released by the Virginia Chamber Foundation said the arrival of Amazon's offices in Northern Virginia will result in $15 billion in new economic activity by 2030 in the D.C. area, The Post's Patricia Sullivan reported. The offices in Crystal City — which Amazon chose alongside Long Island City in New York for its new headquarters — will also lead to 62,000 new jobs in the area, according to the report, my colleague noted. The study “said operations of the Amazon offices alone will produce an estimated annual $6.4 billion from 2019 to 2030, supporting an average 27,928 jobs each year in the region,” Patricia wrote. “The total impact, which includes spinoff businesses and those that arise to serve the new employees, will be more than twice that, the report said.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Post.)
— More technology news from the private sector:
— Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, warned that Chinese mobile app companies represent a national security threat to the United States, BuzzFeed News's Craig Silverman reported. “Under Chinese law, all Chinese companies are ultimately beholden to the Communist Party, not their board or shareholders, so any Chinese technology company — whether in telecom or mobile apps — should be seen as extensions of the state and a national security risk,” Warner told Silverman.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— More than 100 researchers planning to attend the NeurIPS conference on artificial intelligence or its associated workshops in Montreal were unable to be present because their visa applications were denied or delayed, Wired's Tom Simonite reported. “AI researchers say the visa problems undermine efforts to make their field more inclusive, and less likely to produce technology that discriminates or disadvantages people who aren’t white or Western,” Simonite wrote. “Scores of people due to attend or present work at Black in AI, a workshop that took place Friday, were unable to travel to Canada. Many were coming from African countries.”
— More technology news about tech workforce and culture:
— Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey tweeted that he meditated for 10 days in Myanmar, a country where he said “people are full of joy and the food is amazing.” Then came the backlash. “Critics accused him of being ‘tone-deaf’ and ignoring the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority,” the Guardian's Alexandra Topping wrote. “700,000 Rohingya refugees fled Myanmar last year, with the country’s military accused of genocide against the ethnic group in Rakhine state in a damning UN report that alleged the army was responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity against minorities.”
For my birthday this year, I did a 10-day silent vipassana meditation, this time in Pyin Oo Lwin, Myanmar 🇲🇲. We went into silence on the night of my birthday, the 19th. Here’s what I know 👇🏼— jack (@jack) December 9, 2018
Myanmar is an absolutely beautiful country. The people are full of joy and the food is amazing. I visited the cities of Yangon, Mandalay, and Bagan. We visited and meditated at many monasteries around the country. pic.twitter.com/wMp3cmkfwi— jack (@jack) December 9, 2018
Topping noted that Andrew Stroehlein, European media director for Human Rights Watch, scolded Dorsey.
I’m no expert on meditation, but is it supposed to make you so self-obsessed that you forget to mention you’re in a country where the military has committed mass killings & mass rape, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, in one of today’s biggest humanitarian disasters? https://t.co/D7I26CPTQ8— Andrew Stroehlein (@astroehlein) December 9, 2018
From BuzzFeed News's Joe Bernstein:
Putting aside the, uh, ethnic cleansing, I feel like going on Twitter to brag about your extreme meditation is probably not very good Buddhist practice— Joe Bernstein (@Bernstein) December 9, 2018
— Kim Young-ky, who leads the Samsung unit in charge of 5G equipment, is set to step down as president of Samsung’s networks business and take an adviser role at the firm, according to the Wall Street Journal.
— News about tech blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- Google chief executive Sundar Pichai testifies before the House Judiciary Committee tomorrow.
- House Armed Services subcommittee hearing on the Defense Department's “artificial intelligence structure, investments, and applications” tomorrow.
- House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing titled “RAY BAUM’S Act: A bipartisan foundation for bridging the digital divide” tomorrow.
- The Washington Post holds a Technology 202 Live event on technology, mobility and the future of cities on Thursday.
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