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The Trump administration’s “social media summit” was almost a microcosm of what it's like to be online in Trump's Washington these days. It was jam-packed with the kind of is-this-really-happening moments that felt like a Twitter feed come to life.
Memes were created in real time: Large posters of some of President Trump’s most famous tweets were placed on stands. My colleague Philip Bump spotted a tweet about the president’s “covfefe” typo next to the bust of Abraham Lincoln.
And Trump, without a 280-character limit yesterday, gave wide-ranging remarks that were made-for-viral moments. In addition to blasting the tech companies, he had colorful ways to describe his favorite tweets (“It’d be like a rocket ship when I put out a beauty") and compared Twitter to a typewriter. He veered from talking about the weather on his Fourth of July celebration ("They learned it was my real hair that day because I was drenched") to criticizing former California governor and actor Arnold Schwarzenegger's performance on "The Apprentice."
And the feuds that might otherwise take place online happened live as a wide cast of the president’s controversial supporters, known for generating sometimes misleading or conspiratorial posts supporting Trump, gathered at the White House. Before everyone went home, a brawl broke out in the Rose Garden, as former White House official and conservative media personality Sebastian Gorka yelled at Playboy Magazine’s Brian Karem. “You’re not a journalist, you're a punk,” Gorka shouted:
But beyond the circus-like atmosphere of the event, the conference had serious implications for Silicon Valley. It highlighted how the president's attacks on Big Tech are creating more political jeopardy for the tech companies in Washington.
As my colleague Tony Romm wrote, "the conference represented [Trump's] highest-profile broadside against Silicon Valley after months of accusations that tech giants censor conservative users and websites."
Though the companies have repeatedly denied these claims, multiple attendees exiting the event told Tony that congressional Republicans appear poised to act. So what's next? Here's what we're tracking:
1. The White House says more scrutiny is on the way. The tech companies weren't at the White House yesterday, but Trump says the White House will have an event with them soon -- and that their presence would be required. He also issued the following directive to his administration:
Today, I am directing my Administration to explore all regulatory and legislative solutions to protect the free speech rights of ALL AMERICANS. We hope to see more transparency, more accountability, and more FREEDOM! #SocialMediaSummit https://t.co/i6th5qtfAj— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 11, 2019
2. Congressional Republicans' efforts might start with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, Tony reports. The Tennessee Republican said she's moving ahead with a task force to study tech giants and "find answers to the issues of privacy and data security" as well as competition, as she detailed in a later interview with Tony.
"I'm hearing from so many people who are saying, 'We need to put some guard rails in place,' because we've never done that," Blackburn said. "This is not an industry in its infancy. This is an industry that is a mature industry at this point."
3. Privacy concerns about Big Tech came up at the social media summit, too. Conservatives heard from House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, a longtime critic of tech giants' content moderation decisions. But he touched not just on bias but privacy, reiterating a belief that consumers should own their personal data -- and that Congress may need to legislate, according to two people in the room who spoke with Tony.
McCarthy told me in a statement he's concerned about bias, but that isn't the only tech issue that should concern Americans. "The collection and use of our data by technology companies must be met with a new privacy framework that allows each American to see our data, control our data, and delete our data," McCarthy said. "As the digital age continues to grow, we will be relentless in our pursuit of accountability, innovation, and privacy.”
4. Sen. Josh Hawley got air time for his push to overhaul Section 230, a legal shield that protects tech platforms from liability for content people post on their sites. Hawley spoke about his efforts to make that legal immunity contingent on the companies' ability to prove to the government that they are not discriminating against conservatives. (You can read our previous coverage here). Trump said Hawley is doing "important" work and that he will be in attendance at the White House's upcoming meeting with the tech companies.
5. But the summit could make it harder for Republicans to work across the aisle on tech isues. Democrats sharply criticized the Trump administration for inviting controversial conservative provocateurs who are known for targeting Trump's opponents with inflammatory tweets and misleading videos. From Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.), who leads the House's top tech committee, on Twitter:
It’s not surprising that one of the loudest disseminators of misinformation is inviting known extremists and conspiracy theory peddlers to the White House social media summit. https://t.co/wB1fSLIq3Y— Rep. Frank Pallone (@FrankPallone) July 11, 2019
Just before Trump kicked off his social media summit yesterday, Twitter went dark for users across the United States.
When the site came back online, The Verge's Casey Newton commented on the irony that the outage coincided with the event.
Twitter going down during the White House social media summit is the best possible outcome for today https://t.co/f74msuOtt2— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) July 11, 2019
My colleague Hamza Shaban touched on the isolation users felt during the long 60-odd minutes.
"Is anybody there?"— Hamza Shaban (@hshaban) July 11, 2019
"This is John Connor."
"Connor, what the hell is happening? Who's in charge there?"
"Twitter is down." pic.twitter.com/AvxJwDFEFZ
And for some, the outage was almost productive. GV partner M.G. Siegler:
What did you do during the Great Twitter Outage of 2019? I peered up from my screen long enough to notice everyone in the cafe talking about Twitter being down on Slack.— M.G. Siegler (@mgsiegler) July 11, 2019
BITS: Trump suggested in a series of tweets last night that Facebook should have to submit to formal bank regulation in launching its new Libra project, something that could spell serious trouble for the social media giant’s cryptocurrency plans, my colleagues Tony Romm and Damian Paletta report.
“If Facebook did have to register its services as a type of banking, it could be forced to allow the Federal Reserve to scrutinize its entire business operation,” they write. “It would also give the Treasury Department more power to investigate its anti-money laundering controls.”
Trump also expressed that he is "not a fan of Bitcoin" and believes Facebook's new Libra project "will have little standing or dependability.” He called the U.S. dollar the “only one real currency in the USA.”
....Similarly, Facebook Libra’s “virtual currency” will have little standing or dependability. If Facebook and other companies want to become a bank, they must seek a new Banking Charter and become subject to all Banking Regulations, just like other Banks, both National...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 12, 2019
Facebook pointed Tony and Damian to previous statements from Dave Marcus, who oversees Facebook’s cryptocurrency. “Facebook will not control the network, the currency, or the reserve backing it,” Marcus has previously emphasized. “Facebook will only be one among over a hundred members of the Libra Association by launch.”
Money laundering is just one of several concerns about the project that other officials, including House Financial Services Chairwoman Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) and Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell, have expressed about the social media giant’s cryptocurrency project. Waters has called for a “moratorium” on the Switzerland-based project until U.S. regulators can get more information.
Marcus will testify in front of the Senate Banking Committee next week.
NIBBLES: Google confirmed that its contractors review recordings of conversations customers have with their Google Assistant devices, my colleague Greg Bensinger reported yesterday. Amazon came under fire by critics earlier this year for similar practices.
The company acknowledged the practice after a whistleblower leaked more than a thousand of the screened recordings to VRT, a Belgian news outlet. The recordings included personal information, such as addresses and medical histories, according to VRT reporters.
"Though Google said just two-tenths of a percent of recordings are used for human review, it also disclosed that customers may occasionally be recorded even when they aren’t using Assistant," Greg writes.
Google wrote in a blog post that devices with Google Assistant only record when a user gives a wake-up command, such as “okay Google,” and that cases of devices picking up a false signal are rare. Of the 1,000 recordings leaked to VRT, 153 were accidental.
Google promised to investigate the leak but defended the practice of collecting audio without explicit user consent. Reviewing recordings in different languages “is a critical part of the process of building speech technology, and is necessary to creating products like the Google Assistant,” David Monsees, product manager for search wrote in a blog.
BYTES: U.S. tech companies had a hand in developing microprocessors that are being used by a Shenzhen-based company to “enhance the capabilities of Internet surveillance and censorship technology it provides to human rights-abusing security agencies in China,” according to a report yesterday from The Intercept's Ryan Gallagher. One employee told The Intercept that the technology is being used to secretly observe the Internet activity of 200 million people.
A nonprofit led by Google and IBM, called The OpenPower Foundation, brokered a “collaboration” between IBM, U.S. chip manufacturer Xilinx and the Shenzhen-based business, Semptian, according to Ryan, to build microprocessors that allow computers to monitor vasts troves of data. The reported arrangement is drawing criticism from Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), who has been active on tech policy issues involving China.
“It’s disturbing to see that China has successfully recruited Western companies and researchers to assist them in their information control efforts,” Warner, Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat, told The Intercept.
Semptian, Google and Xilinx did not respond to The Intercept's requests for comment. The OpenPower Foundation told The Intercept it “does not become involved, or seek to be informed, about the individual business strategies, goals or activities of its members.” An IBM spokesman told The Intercept that the company “has not worked with Semptian on joint technology development.” However Ryan reports that a source familiar with Semptian's operations said IBM worked with the Shenzhen-based company through a collaborative cloud platform that is supported by an IBM research unit.
— Talks for a $26 billion merger between T-Mobile and Sprint have slowed despite a greenlight from the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission, The Wall Street Journal’s Drew Fitzgerald and Brent Kendall report. At fault is stalled negotiations with Dish, which is set to acquire offloaded assets from the two companies to form a fourth-major carrier and clear the way for the deal at the Department of Justice. “The deal would help protect more than $21 billion of wireless spectrum licenses [Dish chairman Charlie Ergen] has amassed in recent years by putting them to work on a customer base,” Drew and Brent write, adding that the FCC “could rescind some of the licenses if they aren’t put to use soon.”
But the three companies have been unable to reach an agreement over what Dish can do with the assets once it acquires them. Before the companies offered to offload the assets, officials at the Department of Justice recommending blocking the merger, my colleague Tony reported in May. It’s likely the companies will miss the July 29 deadline set by the DOJ for negotiations, the Journal reports — the second deadline missed since the merger cleared that FCC. If merger does pass Justice Department review, it could still face court challenges from over a dozen state attorneys general.
— More news from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Fortune Brainstorm Tech takes place July 15-17 in Aspen, Colorado.
- The Senate Banking Committee hosts a hearing to examine Facebook's proposed digital currency and privacy considerations on July 16 at 10 a.m.
- The Senate Judiciary Committee hosts a hearing to examine Google and censorship through search engines on July 16 at 10 a.m.
- The House Judiciary Committee hosts a hearing to examine online platforms and market power on July 16 at 2 p.m.
- The Aspen Security Forum takes place July 17-20 in Aspen, Colorado
- The Open Technology Institute holds a panel on the future of free expression online in America on July 18 at 12 p.m.