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President Trump's nod to the tech industry in the State of the Union was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment.
He didn't mention the word “technology” once in his 90-minute address. He devoted less than a sentence to promise “investments in the cutting-edge industries of the future” in his push to overhaul the country's infrastructure.
In a statement released during the speech, a White House aide fleshed out that vague reference — outlining the administration’s commitment to artificial intelligence and other key tech topics that never got a name-check during Tuesday’s main event.
“The Industries of the Future will be powered by the technological advances of today,” Michael Kratsios, deputy assistant to the president for technology policy, said in a statement Tuesday night. “President Trump’s commitment to American leadership in artificial intelligence, 5G wireless, quantum science, and advanced manufacturing will ensure that these technologies serve to benefit the American people and that the American innovation ecosystem remains the envy of the world for generations to come.”
We must leverage the strength of our uniquely American R&D ecosystem, consisting of the Federal Government, private industry, colleges and universities, research institutions, and science philanthropies, to ensure American leadership in these industries. #SOTU— White House OSTP (@WHOSTP) February 6, 2019
Yet increasing investment in digital infrastructure is a rare area of bipartisan consensus in Washington these days, and critics said Trump passed up an opportunity to elevate the issue. And the fact that it was on the backburner during the president's biggest speech of the year highlighted how hard it will be for technology issues to get air time in Washington as battles over issues like border security take precedence on Capitol Hill.
“These are not top of mind for a Congress that is more focused on partisan fights in many ways than it is on preparing for industries of the future,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif), who represents Silicon Valley.
Khanna told me after the speech that Trump's reference to future industries was so glancing he didn’t even catch it.
“It was a speech that was characterized by a total omission of the future of technology,” Khanna said. “His whole theme is a return to the past.”
Khanna said it was jarring to hear the president celebrate past American accomplishments like the moon walk and then offer no vision for how the U.S. would innovate in the future. Trump could have given the same speech in 1980, he told me.
Trump has long favored emphasizing the economic impact of industries like manufacturing and mining, and Tuesday night was no different. In his remarks about “an unprecedented economic boom,” he trumpeted the addition of 600,000 manufacturing jobs since his election two years ago. But he didn’t make any mention of Silicon Valley’s impact on the economy.
Craig Albright, vice president of legislative strategy for the industry group BSA, called the speech a “missed opportunity," saying the president could have provided more details about emerging tech like 5G and artificial intelligence.“It was an opportunity to emphasize how investments in those technologies keep the country strong,” he told me.
Trump has long called for a plan to address the country's "crumbling infrastructure," and in his 2018 State of the Union address, he called Congress to create legislation that "generates" at least $1.5 trillion for infrastructure investment. The plan was not been prioritized last year, and it's become a running joke in Washington that the White House tends to get distracted whenever it promises to focus on infrastructure. Last night's speech was light on details on infrastrucutre and did not mention how it would be funded.
Though brief, Trump’s nod to the “industries of the future” was months in the making. My colleague Tony Romm noted on Twitter:
A lot of this language -- a lot of this work -- really came into view when Trump met with Google/Microsoft CEOs, other tech execs, Kissinger, etc in December, those sources say.— Tony Romm (@TonyRomm) February 6, 2019
The Trump administration also labeled its December meeting of top technology executives as a summit on "the industries of the future." The discussions about closer collaboration between government and tech marked an "an easing of tensions between Washington and Silicon Valley," the Wall Street Journal reported at the time.
State of the Union addresses aren’t typically a venue where presidents dive into the weeds on policy issues -- especially when it comes to tech. Andy Halataei, the Information Technology Industry Council senior vice president of government affairs, applauded the remarks, noting the president “has to paint with a broad brush” during a major national address.
“These are issues that don’t always make the headlines but they’re so important to the future of the economy,” Halataei told me. He is confident that lawmakers can still make progress on issues like infrastructure at a time when they’re deeply divided on other policy matters in the wake of the longest shutdown in government history.
The Trump administration's Tuesday night release expanding on the president's State of the Union address outlined the White House's tech policy accomplishments, including the president signing the National Quantum Initiative Act into law and the formation of a Select Committee on AI to coordinate research and development across government.
But Khanna said the president sets the agenda, and the absence of a specific call out in the State of the Union shows these issues aren't top of mind for him.
"We are not focused on the key things we need to do to prepare for the digital transformation of our economy," he said.
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BITS: Several civil liberties and immigration groups want Democrats in Congress to oppose the expansion of technology to surveil the U.S.-Mexico border, The Washington Post's Hamza Shaban reported. The groups said in a letter that a proposal by House Democrats for “smart” border security could result in the use of facial recognition monitoring as well as automated immigration enforcement like “predictive policing.” “Congress should be reviewing and limiting existing border surveillance programs, not providing additional funding for dangerous technologies that infringe on our basic rights,” Evan Greer of the group Fight for the Future said in a statement.
The groups that signed the letter also include the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and others. “The groups' concerns over the expansion of surveillance methods extends also to the potential increased reliance on drone surveillance and the possibility of biometric screening at the border and the collection of immigrants’ DNA,” Hamza reported. “The groups oppose such measures, which they say would exacerbate racial inequities in policing and immigration enforcement, lead to privacy violations and data misuse, and curb people’s willingness to exercise their First Amendment rights.”
NIBBLES: Facebook said it is banning four armed groups from the social network in Myanmar, a country where the United Nations has said Facebook has been used to spread hate amid ethnic strife. “The ethnic violence happening in Myanmar is horrific and we don’t want our services to be used to spread hate, incite violence or fuel tension on the ground,” Facebook said in a blog post. The groups that the company is kicking off its platform are the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Kachin Independence Army and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army.
Facebook said that it will also remove “all related praise, support and representation” of this groups as soon as it becomes aware of it. A Facebook executive told the Financial Times that the company's ban came in response to an increase in violence associated with those groups and did not follow any requests from Myanmar's authorities. As BuzzFeed News's Pranav Dixit noted, Facebook has faced accusations that it failed to curb hate speech in Myanmar and thus helped fuel violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority.
BYTES: Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeffrey P. Bezos wants to know how The National Enquirer obtained texts from his affair with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez, The Post’s Marc Fisher, Manuel Roig-Franzia and Sarah Ellison reported. "Depending on whom you believe, the Enquirer’s exposé on Bezos’s affair was a political hit inspired by President Trump’s allies, an inside job by people seeking to protect Bezos’s marriage, or no conspiracy at all, simply a juicy gossip story," my colleagues reported.
Bezos has commissioned an investigation to find out how the Enquirer obtained his private communications as the tabloid published explicit text messages between him and Sanchez. Gavin de Becker, Bezos’s private security consultant, has concluded that Bezos wasn’t hacked. "Rather, de Becker said in an interview, the Enquirer’s scoop about Bezos’s relationship with former TV anchor Lauren Sanchez began with a 'politically motivated' leak meant to embarrass the owner of The Post — an effort potentially involving several important figures in Trump’s 2016 campaign," my colleagues reported. A spokesman for the Enquirer declined to say how the tabloid obtained the text messages, but it said the coverage was not influenced by external political forces. (My colleagues also noted that The Post has a business relationship with de Becker.)
— Facebook removed 22 pages associated with conspiracy theorist Alex Jones after an update in the social network's rules, the Verge's Casey Newton reported. Facebook's new policy limits administrators' ability to create new pages that are similar to pages that have previously been banned by the company. Facebook removed four pages from Jones in August. “Of the removed pages, Jones himself was not an administrator on all of them, Facebook said,” according to the Verge. “But all of them had administrators who also served as administrators on the four pages that the company removed in August.”
— The cloud technology company Okta said it will give $500,000 over the next four years to help reduce homelessness and poverty, Fast Company's Adele Peters reported. San Francisco-based Okta will give the grant to the nonprofit Tipping Point, which aims to combat poverty in the Bay Area. The company also announced additional initiatives beyond the grant. “The company will hire San Francisco high school students as interns this summer as part of the city’s Opportunities for All initiative,” according to Fast Company. “It will also offer free meeting space in its new offices to nonprofits that are themselves getting priced out of the Bay Area, and will step up its efforts to have its employee volunteer.”
— Start-ups and smaller companies in the Chinese technology sector are going through a rough patch that includes layoffs and tightening venture funding, the Wall Street Journal's Shan Li and Yoko Kubota reported. The deceleration of Chinese tech has particularly affected bike share companies, such as Mobike. “Hundreds of employees have left the company in recent months, either voluntarily or through layoffs, according to people familiar with the matter,” the Journal reported. Douyu, a video streaming firm, has also dismissed workers. The “freezing winter” for the Chinese Internet, as the episode has been dubbed, comes as China's economy has slowed down amid trade tensions with the United States.
— More technology news from the private sector:
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— Pallone and Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on communications and technology, said the Federal Communications Commission “has failed repeatedly to act in the public interest” under the leadership of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. Pallone and Doyle on Monday sent a letter to Pai containing a list of detailed questions about the agency's workload and backlog. “Not only have you have failed on numerous occasions to provide Democratic members of this Committee with responses to their inquiries, you have also repeatedly denied or delayed responding to legitimate information requests from the public about agency operations,” the lawmakers wrote to Pai.
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— News about tech incidents and blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- CompTIA DC Fly-In technology conference in Washington.
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- The Brookings Institution holds a panel discussion titled “Smart cities and artificial intelligence” on Feb. 11.
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