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A measure from congressional Democrats to restore Obama-era net neutrality rules is most likely dead on arrival. But the party’s top brass is throwing its weight behind the effort anyway — signaling it’s an issue the party's betting might resonate with 2020 voters.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) and about 40 other Senate Democrats are lining up behind a bill to reverse a decision by President Trump’s Federal Communications Commission and reinstate 2015 rules to make the Internet a public utility and prevent cable and Internet companies from blocking sites they don't like or speeding up a web site's traffic in exchange for money.
Though the bill has a strong chance of passing a Democratic-controlled House, it’s not a priority in a Republican-led Senate. It’s even less likely that Trump would sign a law reversing his administration’s decision.
Gigi Sohn, a top FCC adviser during the Obama administration, acknowledged the path to make the bill law would be difficult while Trump sits in the Oval Office.
“This about setting up for the future,” Sohn told me. “They’re making it an election issue, as it should be.”
Some of the party’s most prominent 2020 presidential candidates — including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Kamala Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) — are touting their support for the “Save the Internet” bill on social media. Net neutrality will likely be a buzzy topic as several candidates, including Warren and Klobuchar, mingle with the tech industry at the South by Southwest conference in Austin this weekend.
Pelosi and the 2020 candidates are hoping that the theme fits into the broader Democratic messaging of making the economy fairer to people on the lower-end of the income spectrum. They hope that voters see large internet service providers with broad control over costs and the delivery of content as players similar to big companies they see as taking advantage of the little guy.
Net neutrality has been part of the Democrats’ platform for many cycles — but it’s doubtful that issue alone can move voters' feet to the polls in the same way other concerns such as health care or immigration. But that doesn't mean Democrats aren't trying.
Warren, who is known for her rhetoric against Wall Street and calls to break up monopolies, wrote on Twitter that the Internet "doesn't belong to a few giant companies."
The internet doesn’t belong to a few giant companies – it belongs to all of us. Rather than tilting the playing field toward corporate interests, I'm joining @SenMarkey and @SenateDems to introduce a bill that restores #NetNeutrality and keeps the internet free and open for all. https://t.co/H4SBN1RSlP— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) March 6, 2019
Harris noted her support of the bill is about the "future of the economy" in a Tweet:
Cable companies shouldn’t have the ability to block or slow down what you read or watch online. Period. The fight to restore net neutrality is about the future of our economy, free speech, and protecting consumers. We can’t back down. https://t.co/23pH9Kubkr— Kamala Harris (@KamalaHarris) March 7, 2019
Democrats are also betting the issue of fairness on the web could resonate with millennials -- a key demographic the party needs to mobilize in 2020. As Trump focuses on reviving legacy industries like manufacturing and mining, early 2020 primary candidates' rhetoric indicates that Democrats may instead try to paint themselves as a more digitally savvy party, touting their commitment to innovation and net neutrality.
“Young people in particular get it, this is about your jobs and your future,” Pelosi said at a news conference on Wednesday.
Reversing the Trump administration's decision to gut net neutrality is a politically popular position, according to limited available polling. A 2017 University of Maryland survey found broad bipartisan opposition to repealing the rules. Following a briefing about net neutrality, 83 percent of those surveyed opposed repealing net neutrality, including 75 percent of Republicans, as well as 89 percent of Democrats and 86 percent of independents.
But there's little polling data available on whether net neutrality can actually move voters.
But there are some signs a related telecom issue -- access to broadband -- could be a a top issue for voters in rural areas, Sohn said. Already, 2020 candidate Klobuchar is making rural broadband access central to her bid for the White House, highlighting it as a key issue in the speech announcing her candidacy.
And Pelosi said the Democrats' net neutrality push is about more than just maintaining an open Internet -- it's about ensuring all Americans have access no matter where they live.
“This legislation also brings the power of the Internet to every corner of the country," Pelosi said. "From rural America to our cities. We must close the urban/rural digital divide, guaranteeing better, cheaper internet, so that we can unlock the economic potential for all.”
Klobuchar says ending net neutrality hurts rural communities in a tweet:
Ending #NetNeutrality hurts consumers, small businesses and rural communities. That’s why I’ve joined @SenMarkey and @SenateDems to introduce the Save the Internet Act. We must act to #SaveTheNet!https://t.co/1UbAsnajPY— Amy Klobuchar (@amyklobuchar) March 7, 2019
In addition to the party's long game, there's also strong pressure on Democrats to keep the issue alive from open Internet advocates. Sohn told me she's never seen such sustained activism around a tech policy issue for so many years, and that activists' efforts to call lawmakers offices and bring attention to the issue through social media is making a difference.
"The small but hardy net neutrality advocates are going to push this thing to end of the earth," Sohn said.
Note to Readers: I'm sorry to share this is Bastien Inzaurralde's last day with The Technology 202. As the newsletter's all-star researcher, Bastien worked around the clock to bring you the most important stories at the intersection of Washington and Silicon Valley. He played an integral role in the newsletter's launch last year, and his sharp writing and news judgement will be sorely missed. I wish Bastien the best as he moves on to an exciting new opportunity at Agence France-Presse.
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BITS: Facebook will bar advertisements containing anti-vaccination conspiracy theories and misinformation, and it will no longer reccommend the offending pages and groups, according to my colleague Reis Thebault. The company also said it would stop reccommending such content on Instagram.
Monika Bickert, Facebook head of global policy management, said leading health organizations have publicly identified vaccine hoaxes, and the company will take action on them if they appear on Facebook.
The changes come after intense political pressure on Capitol Hill, when a Senate panel issued a strong warning about the public health threat of vaccine disinformation. "There, 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger testified that his mother, an anti-vaccine evangelist, relies on Facebook or Facebook-linked sites for all of her information on the subject," Reis wrote. "And she’s certainly not alone."
NIBBLES: Top Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee want to know whether Trump or his allies sought to interfere in the AT&T and Time Warner merger, The Washington Post's Brian Fung and Tony Romm reported. A federal appeals court last week upheld the merger, which the Justice Department opposed. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), the committee's chairman, and Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), who chairs the panel's antitrust subcommittee, requested documents and communications logs between the president and several officials.
Trump opposed the proposed merger when he was running for president in 2016, and the New Yorker recently reported that as president he ordered his then-top economic adviser Gary Cohn to contact DOJ in an attempt to prevent the merger. “Nadler and Cicilline are focusing their request on the period from November 2016, just after Election Day, to Feb. 26 of this year,” my colleagues wrote. “In addition to seeking communications between Trump and top aides, the lawmakers asked for records documenting contact between the Justice Department and Trump or Cohn or any other White House employee.”
BYTES: Several electric scooter companies are moving to hire more employees instead of solely relying on gig economy contractors, Wired's Aarian Marshall reported. In Los Angeles, Spin has hired 45 workers and could recruit more in other places in the United States if the change bears fruit — the company is present in 12 cities and eight college campuses. “Those who work more than 30 hours a week are entitled to full benefits: paid time off, health and dental insurance, and commuter benefits. They’ll get a W-2 form come tax season,” Wired reported. The Los Angeles employees are tasked with maintaining and collecting the scooters.
Switching from contracting to hiring employees can result in increased payroll expenses, but some start-ups in other sectors decided to go down this route even if it doesn't ensure success, Marshall noted. “Scooter-share is a new business, and not yet a profitable one; this shift is a sign that the companies are still working out the kinks,” according to Wired.
— A YouTube spokesman said the company will show fact checks in the video platform's search results when people look for issues that can be “prone to misinformation,” BuzzFeed News's Pranav Dixit reported. The fact checks, which the company calls “information panels,” have already been launched in India for some users and they are set to ultimately be deployed globally. “To be clear: Videos containing misinformation can still appear in the search results, but YouTube will generate these disclaimers when a query involves sensitive topics, with the intent to inform viewers as the company deals with the spread of misinformation on the platform,” according to BuzzFeed News.
— Facebook said it cracked down on a network of accounts, pages and groups in Britain that engaged in “coordinated inauthentic behavior” to spread divisive and hateful comments on the platform. Those who controlled the fake accounts pushed both far-right and anti-far-right messaging online and misrepresented who they were, according to a post by Nathaniel Gleicher, head of cybersecurity policy at Facebook. They posted content about racism, immigration, free speech, LGBT issues, religion and other topics. Some of those pages, groups and accounts had names such as “Anti Far Right Extremists,” “Atheists Research Centre” and “Politicalized.”
The company took down 23 pages, 74 accounts and five groups on Facebook as well as 35 Instagram accounts that belonged to this British network. The tech giant also said that it took down 31 pages, groups and accounts on Facebook that were part of a different misinformation network in Romania. Those behind the Romanian network “typically posted about local news and political issues, including partisan news under fictitious bylines in support of the Social Democratic Party,” Gleicher wrote.
— More technology news from the private sector:
— The Defense Department is reviewing the security clearance of SpaceX chief executive Elon Musk after he smoked marijuana as he appeared on a podcast last year, Bloomberg News's Anthony Capaccio reported, citing a U.S. official. “Musk has refiled his SF-86 security form, which requires a federal employee or contractor seeking a clearance to acknowledge any illegal drug use over the previous seven years, according to the official, who asked not to be identified,” Bloomberg News reported. “The entrepreneur has a secret-level clearance because of his role as founder and CEO of Space Exploration Technologies Corp., which is certified to launch military spy satellites.”
— Senators from both parties scolded Equifax and Marriott for failing to prevent huge data breaches that exposed consumers' data and put people at risk of identity theft, my colleague Tony reported.
The top executives appeared at a hearing of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations where lawmakers concentrated their attention on the Equifax breach. “I understand you’re doing things, but you’re doing things after a major breach,” said Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), according to my colleague. “And what I want to make sure [of is] that Americans -- whose information is in the custody of an entity they may not even know anything about — don’t have to wait for there to be a breach before companies start doing what they should responsibly do.”
— More technology news from the public sector:
— News about tech workforce and culture:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
— Kelly Bennett, chief marketing officer at Netflix, will leave the company, Reuters reported.
— Today in funding news:
- Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation and the California Consumer Privacy Act on March 12.
- House Judiciary Committee hearing on the T-Mobile and Sprint merger on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds an event titled “How can public policy keep up with technological change?” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on “How China and the U.S. are advancing artificial intelligence” on March 12.
- The Brookings Institution holds a discussion on online consumer privacy on March 14.
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