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Technology titans stand to benefit from a Trump administration change to  the rule governing immigration for high-skilled workers, which could bring a rare break in two years of acrimony between Silicon Valley and the White House on immigration policy. 

The Department of Homeland Security introduced changes to the high-skilled worker visa lottery this week that aim to improve the chances for immigrants with a master’s degree or higher from U.S. schools. The change could be a boost for top technology giants that heavily recruit engineers with advanced degrees, while potentially lowering the chances for IT contracting firms known for inundating the system with applications for lower-paying positions. The change goes into effect in April. 

Technology companies want H-1B visas because they’re often the most expeditious way to bring top foreign tech talent into their U.S. offices. But with only 85,000 H-1B visas awarded each year, it’s also a fiercely competitive process -- and the biggest tech companies are pleased with any advantages they can get. 

“Intel relies on the ability to hire the best talent to build the next generation of innovations and to be competitive in the global marketplace, and this encourages the best and brightest minds to work in and for America,” Intel said. 

The changes were also applauded by tech workers' unions. 

“It’s a step in the right direction," said Rennie Sawade, a spokesman for a union representing tech workers The Washington Alliance of Technology Workers and a Microsoft employee. “H-1B hasn’t been overhauled in a long time.”

The H-1B system has changed little since the dawn of the Internet, and tech companies have long been pushing for reform to improve the visa system for highly in-demand tech workers. 

Yet the issue has largely taken a back seat as immigration emerged as perhaps the most contentious issue between the White House and Silicon Valley during the Trump administration. Technology executives have railed against policies ranging from the travel ban on foreign nationals from Muslim-majority countries to efforts to end the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. And politically charged debates over the border wall have sucked up all the oxygen in Washington. 

“When you deal with something like a border wall or DACA, it tends to be the elephant in every room,” said Scott Corley, executive director of Compete America, a high-skilled immigration coalition whose members include Amazon and Facebook. “Everything you’re trying to get done it sits behind that.”

The tech industry is welcoming the latest news, but it's still more incremental than what most reform advocates would like to see.

Already, applicants with advanced degrees had an edge because only they were allowed to participate in a lottery for 20,000 visas. Then those who did not win moved on to the general lottery for the remaining 65,000 slots. But with its new rule, DHS is reversing the order of the lotteries, so all applicants with master’s first get a shot at the general pool. The new order will decrease the odds for workers who have a bachelor's degree.

The change could result in up to 5,340 more immigrants with advanced degrees gaining a visa, according to a statement from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

“These simple and smart changes are a positive benefit for employers, the foreign workers they seek to employ, and the agency’s adjudicators, helping the H-1B visa program work better,” said USCIS Director L. Francis Cissna in a statement. 

Yet some advocates aren't sure if prioritizing advanced degrees is the best way to ensure the H-1B system allows companies to hire top tech talent.

Corley said companies rely on technologists with a wide range of degrees to help them keep their edge against competitors, and that a degree is not an adequate way to measure whether a worker is the best person to work on a new technology. He wants to see Congress take up legislation that would more directly address the issues with the H-1B process today. Because it's so hard to get an H-1B visa and they're tied to specific positions, many workers feel they can't leave those jobs and it limits their employment options, he said. 

“Simply saying we’re going to focus on master's degrees doesn’t solve any of those challenges,” Corley said. 

The change could also increase pressure for foreign nationals seeking to work at tech companies to obtain advanced degrees. Lisa Spiegel, head of the Immigration Practice Group at Duane Morris LLP in San Francisco, says many workers trying to obtain H-1B visas were already obtaining master’s degrees to gain more chances at the lottery. 

“I think the reality is people are going to start looking at U.S. master's degrees as part of the criteria when they hire a foreign national,” Spiegel told me. 

BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES

BITS: Twitter removed thousands of malicious accounts believed to originate in Iran, Russia and Venezuela for carrying out disinformation efforts including around the 2018 midterm election, according to The Washington Post's Tony Romm. Some of those disinformation operations in the run-up to the 2018 midterms used tactics similar to the Russian troll farm Internet Research Agency (IRA) in an effort to increase divisions and tensions.

For instance, Twitter said it took down 764 accounts originating in Venezuela that imitated Russian disinformation methods. “The company said it removed a majority of these accounts by November 2017, but nearly a quarter of more recently created accounts tweeted 50,000 times about the 2018 midterm election,” Tony reported.

The company said it removed 418 accounts believed to originate in Russia before the election last year but couldn't say definitively whether those accounts were tied to the IRA. Twitter also said it removed more than 2,600 accounts believed to be linked to Iranian malicious activity that had been discovered in 2018. Facebook also removed 783 accounts, pages and groups “for engaging in coordinated inauthentic behavior tied to Iran,” the company said.

From Tony:

NIBBLES: The debate on net neutrality is going to court today. Lawyers for the Federal Communications Commission will defend the agency's repeal of net neutrality rules while opponents are expected to argue that the move was based on flawed analysis and reasoning, The Washington Post's Brian Fung reported. The repeal of the rules allows Internet providers to alter the speed of websites or apps if they choose to do so. But the dire consequences that opponents of the repeal predicted did not materialize after the rules were abandoned last summer, according to Matthew Berry, FCC chief of staff.

“This wasn’t how the Internet was meant to be,” Denelle Dixon, chief operating officer of Mozilla, which is leading the legal battle against the FCC, told my colleague. “An Internet that enables consumer choice necessarily protects net neutrality. Without protecting net neutrality, [broadband providers] will control the Internet experiences of everyone. And that cannot be what happens.” Other companies and organizations involved in the battle alongside Mozilla include Etsy, Vimeo and tech-backed digital rights groups.

BYTES: Deactivating Facebook for four weeks made people less informed but happier and also freed up an hour of their day on average, The Post's Hamza Shaban reported. Those findings are part of a study by New York University and Stanford University researchers that underscored the downsides of using the social network but also highlighted the benefits that it brings to users. “Any discussion of social media’s downsides should not obscure the basic fact that it fulfills deep and widespread needs,” the researchers said.

The study also found that people deactivating Facebook temporarily spent more time watching television and socializing, and their views on policy became less polarized, Hamza reported. “We find that while deactivation makes people less informed, it also makes them less polarized by at least some measures, consistent with the concern that social media have played some role in the recent rise of polarization in the US,” the researchers said. The experiment took place in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections and involved 2,844 Facebook users, though the sample was not fully representative, according to the study.

RANT AND RAVE

— Reports that three prominent privacy advocates are joining Facebook have sparked a heated debate online. The Information's Ashley Gold reported this week that the social network is hiring Open Technology Institute's Robyn Greene, Access Now's Nathan White and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's Nate Cardozo.

From Ars Technica's Timothy B. Lee:

 

From Riana Pfefferkorn, associate director of surveillance and cybersecurity at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford Law School:

From Marcia Hofmann, a digital rights attorney:

From Alex Howard, a government transparency advocate who previously served as deputy director of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation:

From Birgitta Jonsdottir, an Icelandic politician and former WikiLeaks activist:

PRIVATE CLOUD

— Apple blocked Google from running internal iOS apps after a similar crackdown on Facebook, The Post's Brian Fung reported. Google said it is “working with Apple to fix a temporary disruption to some of our corporate iOS apps, which we expect will be resolved soon.” Google's software, Screenwise Meter, violated Apple's terms as it was available to the broader public when it should have been restricted to Google employees, according to my colleague. TechCrunch reported Thursday evening that Apple later restored Google's access to the program, allowing the search giant to regain access to its corporate apps.

Facebook said it is working to bring back its internal apps for employees online as Apple moved to restore the social network's enterprise certificate. (I wrote about Apple's role in enforcing privacy guidelines in yesterday's Technology 202.)

— Intel chose its interim chief executive Robert Swan to take the job on a permanent basis following a seven-month search for a new CEO, Don Clark reported in the New York Times. “Andy Bryant, Intel’s chairman, said Thursday that the board had conducted a ‘comprehensive’ evaluation of internal and external candidates before settling on Mr. Swan,” according to the Times. “Mr. Bryant credited Mr. Swan’s performance in the interim role for making the difference.”

— More technology news from the private sector:

Apple Inc. plans to launch iPhones with a more-powerful 3-D camera as soon as next year, stepping up the company’s push into augmented reality, according to people familiar with the plans.
Bloomberg
The data-mining company is handing out more bonuses and cheaper stock options after a succession of shareholder writedowns and political controversies tied to its co-founder, Peter Thiel.
Bloomberg
Starting with Denver, Uber aims to become a one-stop shop for all modes of transportation.
The Verge
Chipmaker asks Munich court to impose fine over Dec. 20 ruling
Bloomberg News
PUBLIC CLOUD

— The House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology will hold a hearing on the consequences of the repeal of net neutrality rules on Feb. 7, according to a news release from Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), the committee's chairman, and Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), the subcommittee's chairman. “The FCC’s repeal of these essential protections — known as net neutrality — has been a disaster for consumers,” Pallone and Doyle said in a joint statement. “This hearing will be an important opportunity to hear what the repeal of net neutrality means for the American people, and what has happened since the FCC’s repeal went into effect.”

— A U.N. agency said the United States and China are ahead of other countries in the race to dominate artificial intelligence, Reuters reported. A report by the U.N. World Intellectual Property Organization said that the two companies with the biggest artificial intelligence patent portfolios are American. IBM has 8,920 patent families and Microsoft has 5,930 patent families, according to the report. “The U.S. and China obviously have stolen a lead. They’re out in front in this area, in terms of numbers of applications, and in scientific publications,” WIPO Director-General Francis Gurry said at a news conference, according to Reuters.

— More technology news from the public sector:

The United States wants to steer people away from Huawei towards Western products because of its concerns over the security of the Chinese company’s technology, the U.S. envoy to the European Union said on Thursday.
Reuters
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers' administration and Foxconn Technology Group said Thursday that a massive project planned for the state was moving forward, and disputed Republicans who blamed the new Democratic governor for a change in direction away from manufacturing to more research jobs.
Associated Press
Activists from an anti-globalization group have staged a protest at Google's Paris headquarters to criticize the company for paying little tax.
Associated Press
FAST FWD

— News about tech workforce and culture:

In early January, Google systems reliability engineer Liz Fong-Jones announced she was leaving the company after 11 years, leaving behind, by her account, a half million dollars in stock, to work at the startup Honeycomb.io.
Gizmodo
The California native is “an energy person” who worked in TV and then did a little of everything at the couple’s start-up. It all prepared her to take it public.
The New York Times
#TRENDING

— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:

Technology
Police want to register — and even subsidize — connected home security cameras. That’s just the start of the ethical challenges ahead.
Geoffrey Fowler
“Being the first brand to crack out of the egg is worth at least $10 million.”
The Atlantic
Since a fiber-optic cable was severed on Jan. 20, contact with the outside world has been difficult for residents of the remote island nation.
The New York Times
404 ERROR

— News about tech incidents and blunders:

Houzz, a $4 billion-valued home improvement startup that recently laid off 10 percent of its staff, has admitted a data breach.
TechCrunch
BURN RATE

— Today in funding news:

Marie Kondo’s rise as a cultural icon shows there’s big business to be had in sorting out a mess.
TechCrunch
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