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Today is the first edition of The Technology 202 with our new researcher Tonya Riley. I know she'll bring big ideas and sharp news judgement to this newsletter. Follow her for the latest tech policy news and send tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A prominent Silicon Valley investor has spent the last two years shuttling to Washington to sound the alarm about the tech industry’s problems. This week, he says he’s celebrating signs that an era of inertia on tech regulation is coming to an end.
Roger McNamee says the recent escalation of antitrust scrutiny of Silicon Valley is a signal that Washington is “getting back to business” on competition issues. But the prominent Facebook critic says antitrust action alone isn’t going to solve the tech industry’s problems -- and this week's flurry of scrutiny of tech's power is just the first inning in a lengthy and complicated process.
“This is going to be really hard,” McNamee tells me in an interview. “History tells you it’s going to be disappointing before it’s done. But it’s a start.”
Antitrust fever has hit Washington -- and politicians are hailing this moment as a “tipping point” that will usher in a new era of oversight of Big Tech. But many industry insiders are more skeptical than McNamee that it will result in meaningful change -- and are warning that politicians' political motivations and blind spots about how technology actually works could get in the way of effective policy.
Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former chief security officer, struck a cautious tone as it becomes politically popular for both Republicans and Democrats alike to target the tech industry's dominance and power.
"There are legitimate antitrust issues with all of the big tech companies, but we have to be careful to not allow those investigations to serve as political tools," he wrote on Twitter. "It's sad that this is a potential worry in the US these days."
Others in Silicon Valley who want regulation worried that Washington is late to the game and looking backward as it tries to step up its scrutiny. Jessica Powell, Google’s former communications lead, wrote:
As much as I want to see some regulation of tech, I dread what it's going to look like. The problem with so much regulation is that it comes in late, it comes in hard, and it often looks more backward rather than forward.— jessica powell (@themoko) June 4, 2019
Read @karaswisher https://t.co/wmQjKbUgIo
Washington lawmakers have a reputation in Silicon Valley of seeking heavy-handed regulation with little understanding of how the industry's products work. That's cause for concern during this antitrust moment, Kara Swisher, a longtime Silicon Valley journalist and co-founder of the tech news publication Recode, wrote in the New York Times.
"The very same agencies and legislators now screaming for blood have for decades ignored any sensible regulation of Silicon Valley, afraid of killing the golden geeks," Swisher wrote. "Now, though, they are coming in with guns blazing in a way that looks thoughtless and is likely to prove pointless. They remind me of a legal-pad-carrying Avengers team that’s going to take a lot of what’s good about tech down with what’s bad."
But McNamee has more faith in Washington policymakers and regulators. The author of the book "Zucked" -- a memoir in which McNamee describes his wake-up call about the problems at Facebook after serving as an early mentor to Mark Zuckerberg -- said two years ago it would have been unthinkable that in the span of one week House lawmakers would announce a broad probe into monopoly power in the tech industry and there would be reports that the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department were considering opening investigations into tech giants such as Google. House Judiciary Committee aides confirmed to my colleague Tony Romm yesterday that the investigation will kick off on June 11 with a hearing about the impact of tech giants on local journalism.
It's off to the races, says McNamee. "Once investigations begin, the game will change, and there’s no telling what direction the process will take," McNamee told me.
Though McNamee is bracing for a long process, he says just the spectre of regulation may be enough to start forcing better behavior in the industry.
"Antitrust can be incredibly effective just from starting investigation," he said. "Everything becomes discoverable -- behaviors change."
However, McNamee warned that if Washington is serious about changing Big Tech, lawmakers will have to consider an entirely new regulatory regime. He said past attempts to regulate the tech companies -- like the Federal Trade Commission's 2011 consent decree targeting Facebook -- have fallen short and that the government needs greater enforcement capacity, as well as modernized antitrust laws that could be applied to 21st century business models. As House lawmakers launch their broad investigation, they may explore whether the existing antitrust law needs an overhaul.
The tech companies have been quiet as their antitrust trouble have compounded. Apple chief executive Tim Cook denied in an interview aired yesterday that Apple was a monopoly -- but executives at companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon have been silent. (Amazon chief executive Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Post.) There were signs the news was shaking the industry on Monday, as the companies' stocks tanked following reports of escalated antitrust scrutiny.
BITS: Google is still scrambling to fill key policy positions in Washington -- even as it faces a potential antitrust investigation from the Department of Justice as well as a review from House lawmakers, according to The Information’s Ashley Gold.
The company’s top lobbyist role is vacant, and the search giant also hasn’t announced who will lead policy for its subsidiary YouTube and the European region. Google had this leadership gap at the top of its Washington office since November, when Susan Molinari, the former Republican congresswoman from New York who held the top lobbying job, exited.
One possible reason it has taken so long to replace Molinari is that the company needs candidates with both political connections and management chops, Ashley’s sources say. Google declined to comment on the vacancies.
The current in-house policy team is led by former General Electric executive Karan Bhatia, who has tasked himself with reorganizing the company’s policy team structure. At least four longtime Washington policy staffers have left the company since he held a meeting to unveil the reorganization late this winter, Ashley writes.
Google has been subtly wielding steady influence through lobbying and think tank donations for years, but it seems to be lagging behind its Silicon Valley peers in protecting its nest among rising lawmaker scrutiny. Facebook, in contrast, has been on a hiring spree for anti-trust policy experts and lawyers, according to Business Insider’s Rob Price.
NIBBLES: The House yesterday passed a bill that would offer a path to citizenship to “dreamers” who came to the United States as children, my colleague Felicia Sonmez writes. Tech companies like Google and Facebook have long lobbied for lawmakers to pass legislation to protect dreamers.
Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg praised the legislation last night:
The American Dream and Promise Act of 2019 passed 237 to 187, which would grant dreamers a decade of legal residence status if they meet certain requirements. After two years of higher education or military service or after working for three years, they would then be granted permanent green cards
Millions of dreamers -- including many tech industry employees -- have been caught in legal limbo as the parties have been sharply divided on immigration issues. House Democratic leaders yesterday were hopeful that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would introduce the legislation in the Senate.
“There should be nothing partisan or political about this legislation,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said at a news conference. “We are proud to pass it, we hope, in a bipartisan way.”
But Felicia writes it's unlikely that the Republican Senate leaders will take the legislation up. McConnell and other Senate Republican leaders made no mention odidn't mention the bill at their news conference yesterday.
BYTES: YouTube said it would not take down videos targeting a Vox reporter with racist and homophobic taunts -- sparking a broad criticism of the company's content moderation practices, according to my colleague Eli Rosenberg.
Vox reporter Carlos Maza tweeted he was speechless after YouTube announced it would not take action against conservative commentatator and comedian Steven Crowder, who Maza says spent years harassing him for being gay and Latino. The company promised to look into the issue after Maza edited together examples of taunts from Crowder and shared the video in tweets that were widely shared.
“It seems to me to be a clear violation of that policy,” Maza told my colleague in an interview. “I understand that speech always involves gray areas, but that it’s hard to enforce hate speech policies should not distract from the fact that it’s sometimes extremely clear cut. And this seems to be one of those cases.”
YouTube’s policy explicitly prohibits hate speech, which it defines as “content promoting violence or hatred against individuals or groups" based on things like race, sexuality, nationality and immigration status. But the company says Crowder's videos don't violate that policy -- or any others.
“Our teams spent the last few days conducting an in-depth review of the videos flagged to us, and while we found language that was clearly hurtful, the videos as posted don’t violate our policies,” the company said in a statement posted to social media on Tuesday. “As an open platform, it’s crucial for us to allow everyone–from creators to journalists to late-night TV hosts–to express their opinions w/in the scope of our policies. Opinions can be deeply offensive, but if they don’t violate our policies, they’ll remain on our site.”
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