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The United Kingdom's digital chief is visiting Silicon Valley this week as he makes a bold call for regulation of the technology industry. His trip will be the companies' chance to weigh in on a host of new proposals from British lawmakers aimed at reining in Big Tech, which would have broad implications extending beyond the country's borders.
Jeremy Wright, the secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, says he is meeting with executives from companies such as Facebook, Google and Twitter to tell them they’re out of time to self-regulate. The voluntary steps the companies have taken to tackle disinformation haven’t been enough, he wrote in an op-ed this weekend as members of the British Parliament unveiled a scathing report that endorsed holding the companies accountable for abusive or harmful content on their platforms.
Wright said industry should want to have input as the U.K. considers new regulation, and he plans to talk to the companies about plans to ensure what lawmakers do is “effective.”
“I’m not asking their permission to do it,” Wright said in an interview with the BBC this weekend.
Wright also said the United Kingdom is well-positioned to "lead the way" when it comes to regulating Silicon Valley. That should be cause for concern among technology companies, especially after the British report endorsed a series of tough measures to hold them to a higher standard on disinformation, election integrity and privacy.
The aggressive international calls to crack down on Silicon Valley could also provide a template for other governments. Regulators in the United States and other European countries are escalating oversight of technology giants like Facebook after repeated privacy scandals and Russian interference in the 2016 election highlighted the platforms’ vulnerability to foreign influence operations.
The Federal Trade Commission is in early negotiations with the company over a multibillion-dollar, record-setting fine following a probe into its privacy lapses. Germany's competition watchdog recently restricted the social network's practice of merging data from its main service with data it collects from other services it owns like WhatsApp as well third-party sites.
The 108-page British report offers a number of recommendations, including proposals to empower local election regulators to oversee social-media companies. The lawmakers even endorsed a special tax to pay for an independent regulator to scrutinize Silicon Valley and prevent harmful content from spreading online.
In the report, lawmakers said they hoped other European regulators would use the evidence they gathered to probe Facebook for privacy violations. The report specifically mentions that Ireland is the lead authority on Facebook under Europe’s wide-ranging privacy rules and that they hoped Helen Dixon, the country’s top privacy regulator, would rely on what they uncovered.
Damian Collins, the British lawmaker who leads the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee in the House of Commons, told my colleague Tony Romm there is “pretty much strong, cross-party support for this reform.”
Collins compared the approach to the way the U.K. regulates key industries across the pond such as local broadcasters and major banks. Collins said banks, for example, have a “responsibility to report suspicious activity,” like money laundering, to the authorities. “That responsibility doesn't exist for the tech companies in the same way,” he said.
Months ago, Collins and his panel convened nine countries as part of an international committee that grilled a top Facebook executive and pledged further oversight of the tech industry. Collins said the plan is for that panel to meet again in May with the goal of looking “more widely at some of these issues affecting technology companies.”
Collins wants lawmakers to “develop a greater international understanding about the sort of standards we want to see,” though he noted that any resulting regulations ultimately will “differ country to country." But Collins said he believes that two key U.S. lawmakers -- Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee; and Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence panel, feel similarly.
Karim Palant, public policy manager for Facebook in the United Kingdom, said the company shares lawmakers' concerns about disinformation and election integrity.
“While we still have more to do, we are not the same company we were a year ago,” Palant said in a statement. “We have tripled the size of the team working to detect and protect users from bad content to 30,000 people and invested heavily in machine learning, artificial intelligence and computer vision technology to help prevent this type of abuse.”
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BITS: Google has vastly expanded its U.S. footprint, but it's done so rather secretly. Some communities sometimes find out information about the company’s deals with local officials only after the agreements have been struck, The Washington Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reported. Google has used nondisclosure agreements when discussing real-estate expansions with local authorities — for instance, a planned second campus in San Jose — and has also resorted to shell companies in talks for building data centers.
“Public transparency laws are designed to keep the public interest at the contract table, and the way you do that is with information,” Michelle Wilde Anderson, a Stanford Law School professor who specializes in state and local government law, told my colleague. “If you scrutinize the winners and losers in this bargain, you see that Google is overwhelmingly the winner. Google has a strategic interest in getting their name out of these deals so that they go down more quietly, without public debate.”
Sharing a few more highlights: Google’s secret negotiations also led to favorable land prices. In 2008, the company purchased 850 acres in Iowa for A DOLLAR, per property deeds. I spent hours on the phone w/locals and no one could remember why Google didn’t pay the market price.— Elizabeth Dwoskin (@lizzadwoskin) February 16, 2019
From The Post's Brian Fung:
Even as Amazon was conducting its highly visible site search for HQ2, Google was quietly going around the country negotiating big tax breaks using aliases to mask its identity.— Brian Fung (@b_fung) February 15, 2019
Great scoop by @lizzadwoskin here: https://t.co/3Zf2bYC0xI
From Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration:
Tech giants now are reaping in millions in tax breaks through shell companies and without any public disclosure. If this isn't a sign of a kleptocracy, I don't know what is. https://t.co/YmDkV82HE2— Robert Reich (@RBReich) February 17, 2019
NIBBLES: Disagreements between Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill on how to best protect users' personal information could jeopardize the enactment of data privacy legislation, according to the Wall Street Journal's John D. McKinnon.
Republicans as well as Silicon Valley companies want federal legislation to preempt states' data privacy rules. But many Democrats oppose the idea. “States have been at the vanguard of protecting Americans,” Drew Hammill, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), told the Journal. “All Americans have benefited from state privacy and data breach laws, so their role as policy innovator and law enforcer must be respected.”
Republicans have said that state laws with different requirements could harm companies and consumers. “Legislative aides say measures under discussion include giving users the right to move their data from one company to another and to allow them to deny use of their data during routine online interactions,” according to the Journal. “Participants say there is still momentum for change and room for negotiation.” Lawmakers will also have to grapple with other issues in their debates over data privacy, including how to regulate data brokers as well as businesses outside the tech industry.
BYTES: Apple has made major internal changes as the company tries to become less dependent on iPhone sales. But the moves have left some rank-and-file employees unsettled, according to the Wall Street Journal's Tripp Mickle. Such changes, which date back to last year, include a shakeup among Apple's leadership ranks and a shift in the company's priorities to diversify sources of growth.
The company is working to unveil a video offering next month as part of its efforts to expand its services business. It is also reassessing its priorities around artificial intelligence, hardware and retail.
“Leadership moves of the past few months include promoting artificial intelligence chief John Giannandrea to the executive team; replacing departing retail chief Angela Ahrendts with head of human resources Deirdre O’Brien; and pushing out top Siri voice-assistant executive Bill Stasior,” the Journal reported. “Apple has also trimmed 200 staffers from its autonomous-vehicle project, and is redirecting much of the engineering resources in its services business, led by Eddy Cue, into efforts around Hollywood programming.”
— Uber sued New York City over a vote last year to put a cap on new ride-hailing licenses, CNBC's Steve Kovach reported. “Rather than rely on alternatives supported by transportation experts and economists, the City chose to significantly restrict service, growth and competition by the for-hire vehicle industry, which will have a disproportionate impact on residents outside of Manhattan who have long been underserved by yellow taxis and mass transit,” says Uber's lawsuit, according to CNBC.
— Amazon's decision to scrap a project to open headquarters in New York probably won't cause much damage to the tech firm, according to the Wall Street Journal's Jay Greene. The company intends to increase hiring in its technology hubs in 17 other cities in the United States and Canada. “For a company whose global head count has more than quintupled in the past five years to nearly 648,000, walking from the New York deal is unlikely to either slow its ascent or stop its hiring in the city,” the Journal reported. “The company has more than 800 open positions in New York.” (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
— Separately, Amazon announced that half of all the company's shipments would amount to net-zero carbon emissions by 2030, TechCrunch's Sarah Perez reported. The company recently faced criticism from Greenpeace. “The organization dinged the internet giant only days ago for failing to deliver on its commitment to shifting to renewable energy,” according to TechCrunch. “Its new report said Amazon’s data centers in Virginia are powered by only 12 percent renewable energy, compared with Facebook’s 37 percent and Microsoft’s 34 percent.”
— More technology news from the private sector:
— Eric Goldman, a law professor at Santa Clara University, found that references to emoji and emoticons in U.S. court opinions increased exponentially from 2004 to 2019, the Verge's Dami Lee reported. “So far, the emoji and emoticons have rarely been important enough to sway the direction of a case, but as they become more common, the ambiguity in how emoji are displayed and what we interpret emoji to mean could become a larger issue for courts to contend with,” according to the Verge.
— Julia von Weiler, a German expert in child psychology and adviser to Germany's government, said children under 14 shouldn't be allowed to use smartphones, The Post's Hamza Shaban reported. Von Weiler cited the risk that young people could be exposed to sexually explicit images and “framed the proposal as akin to other childhood restrictions on legal substances,” my colleague reported.
— More technology news from the public sector:
— More news about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— News about tech incidents and blunders:
— Today in funding news:
- The Woodrow Wilson Center holds an event on China’s development of new-energy vehicles on Thursday.
- Senate Commerce Committee hearing on “policy principles for a federal data privacy framework” on Feb. 27.
- The Cato Institute holds a conference titled “Who’s afraid of Big Tech?” on March 1.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies holds an event on “digital governance and the pursuit of technological leadership” on March 4.
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