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Lawmakers from both parties have warned that the tech industry’s Wild West days are over, and regulation is on its way. But the clock is ticking as the 2020 election approaches and threatens to dominate the political debate in Washington.
There’s bipartisan consensus that Washington needs to do more to protect consumers’ data, and even that companies such as Facebook, Google and Amazon may be becoming too powerful. But expect to see partisan divisions over how to tackle those issues that could limit real action in a divided Congress.
With Congress back in Washington this week, here's how lawmakers plan to keep the pressure on Big Tech:
1. Pushing on a national privacy law. Lawmakers have yet to reach a consensus despite optimism that 2019 would be the year Congress finally got its act together to pass a bill to protect consumers' date.
Congressional lawmakers have just a few months left to pass a federal privacy bill before California's sweeping state privacy law takes effect in 2020. Businesses in the technology sector and beyond are intensifying their lobbying efforts to pressure Congress to act due to fears they could soon face a patchwork of different privacy state laws that would be difficult to comply with. Several members of the powerful lobbying group Business Roundtable -- including Amazon, IBM and Salesforce -- wrote a letter yesterday to congressional leaders asking them to create "strong, consistent protections" for American consumers. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos also owns The Post.)
There are several of privacy bills floating on both sides of the aisle, but few proposals have gained traction. A bipartisan group in the Senate Commerce Committee that was seen as one of the most promising efforts to pass privacy legislation stalled earlier this summer. The committee's chair Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) remain in ongoing negotiations.
2. Intensifying antitrust scrutiny through hearings in both chambers. There’s a push for lawmakers to complete a broad investigation of competition in the tech industry before the 2020 race heats up, but don’t hold your breath for any actual legislation to pass until after the election.
There will be more tech antitrust hearings to come led by the House antitrust subcommittee, which is chaired by Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) One of the first topics the committee will be eying is the role of data and privacy in competition and antitrust issues. The committee was scheduled to hold a hearing on that issue tomorrow, but it was just postponed.
In the Senate, top Republicans such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) say to expect a more measured approach. The Senate Judiciary Committee will be hosting several related hearings, including one examining mergers and acquisitions in the technology industry later this month.
It's likely Congress will move slowly on antitrust, but lawmakers could play a key role in oversight of the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, which have opened antitrust investigations into Silicon Valley companies. The Senate Judiciary Committee will also host a hearing on the oversight of the enforcement of antitrust laws next week.
3. Scrutinizing Section 230, tech's prized legal shield that grants companies broad immunity for content third parties post on their platforms. But expect partisan divisions to persist over why it needs to change. There have been growing calls from both parties to reform the section of the Communications Decency Act, which ensures that people cannot bring lawsuits against the tech companies for the content third parties post on their platforms. Recent mass shootings that began with gunmen posting hateful screeds on platforms like 8chan have raised new questions among Democrats about whether the tech companies should be more responsible for violent content on their sites.
Republicans are also interested in reviewing Section 230 -- but for very different reasons. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has pushed forward a bill that would create new limitations on the legal shield to address accusations that the companies are biased against conservatives. His proposal was widely criticized by tech policy experts, and there is no evidence that the companies are systematically biased against one political party. And regardless of party, social media companies will be on the defensive about any changes to Section 230.
BITS: The California Senate passed a bill that could convert hundreds of thousands of contract workers such as Uber and Lyft drivers in the state to employee status, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui writes. The bill, known as AB5, has pitted Obama-era officials who have joined tech companies in advisory roles against high-profile progressives who believe the bill is in line with their efforts to address economic inequality.
The tensions within the bill were highlighted last month when freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) attacked former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in a tweet for writing an op-ed in the San Francisco Chronicle that criticized some aspects of AB5. Former “officials should not become corporate lobbyists, in letter or spirit. It’s an abuse of power a stain on public service,” Ocasio-Cortez said on Twitter. “We’re supposed to fight FOR working people, not against them.”
The debate is also likely to play out on the 2020 campaign trail. Faiz reports that presidential candidate and former vice president Joe Biden declined to take a position on AB5 after multiple inquiries from The Post. But more liberal candidates such as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have come out in support of the legislation.
AB5 now goes back to the state assembly before it goes to the governor's desk for a signature. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), who is widely viewed as a business-friendly politician, surprised many Uber and Lyft executives when he threw his support behind the bill earlier this month.
NIBBLES: The Federal Trade Commisssion is interviewing merchants that sell products on Amazon to determine whether the company is abusing its power to thwart competition, Bloomberg's Spencer Soper and Ben Brody write.
Several attorneys and at least one economist are conducting the interviews, which last an average of 90 minutes. One merchant, Jaivin Karnani, told Bloomberg he was surprised the FTC returned his call the next day. The FTC officials are asking all of the merchants what percentage of their sales are coming from Amazon versus other ecommerce companies like eBay or Walmart, signaling the regulators are skeptical of Amazon's repeated claims that suppliers have many alternatives.
"The interviews indicate the agency is in the early stages of a sweeping probe to learn how Amazon works, spot practices that break the law and identify markets dominated by the company," Spencer and Ben write. "The length of the interviews and the manpower devoted to examining Amazon point to a serious inquiry rather than investigators merely responding to complaints and going through the motions, antitrust experts say."
Amazon hasn't disclosed an investigation by the FTC, and it's rare for the agency to acknowledge scrutiny of individual companies. But FTC chairman Joe Simons told Bloomberg in August that he wanted to hear from third-party Amazon sellers about their experience using the platform. My colleague Tony Romm previously reported that Amazon could face heighted scrutiny from the FTC following an agreement between the agencies.
BYTES: Danish politician Margrethe Vestager will continue her role as the European Commission’s competition chief in addition to taking on expanded responsibilities in a new role as executive vice president for digital, reports Mark Scott at Politico. In her five years at Europe’s top antitrust watchdog, Vestager has launched multiple investigations into American tech giants including Apple, Google and Facebook, slamming them with a collective billions of dollars in fines. Vestager will also focus on data privacy in her new role and shaping standards for the region, something that could put her in conflict with national privacy watchdogs already on the beat, Mark reports.
In her new role, Vestager will also take on coordinating Europe's position on digital taxes — a topic that has created tension between the United States and allies France and Great Britain, both of which launched efforts to tax digital companies. While France and the United States have reached an unsteady compromise for now, Vestager's new role could accelerate efforts in the region. Trump has previously criticized Vestager for going after U.S. tech companies.
-- Lyft will introduce a number of new safety features, including mandatory community safety education and a check-in feature for trips that go off course, my colleague Faiz Siddiqui reports. The changes come in response to growing criticism over the company's handling of user safety, including a recent lawsuit by 14 women alleging the company didn't do enough to prevent their sexual assaults by drivers.
Nearly a dozen women spoke with Faiz last month describing the company's response to allegations of sexual harassment as inadequate and lambasting it for lacking a panic button for users to report immediate danger. Now, users’ location and vehicle information, such as license plate numbers, will be displayed alongside a 911 integration so users can more easily report their trips to dispatchers. The feature is similar to the panic button Uber has had on its app for over a year.
“The onus is on all of us to learn from any incident, whether it occurs on our platform or not, and then work to help prevent them,” Lyft President John Zimmer said in a statement on the company’s website. But critics are still skeptical: Michael Bomberger, one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuits cases against Lyft, called the announcement a “cheap public relations stunt.”
— More news from the private sector:
-- The Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity has launched a campaign to urge state attorneys general to not turn recently launched probes into Facebook and Google “into a political spectacle,” the group shared with The Technology 202. The campaign highlights a divide in conservative attitudes toward growing antitrust sentiment between groups wary of government regulation and those who see enforcement as a tool against alleged conservative bias in Big Tech.
“There are serious consequences to abusing this kind of enforcement that create troubling ripple effects for American workers and families.” Americans for Prosperity senior tech policy analyst Billy Easley said in a statement. “The AGs involved should not use this investigation as a means to score political points.”
The ads, which will begin running in nine states on Facebook today, will encourage citizens to contact their state attorneys general and ask them to center the probe “on real, measurable consumer harm and anticompetitive practices” such as price fixing and collusion. The campaign follows a similar push in March to encourage lawmakers to reject Sen. Warren's proposal to break up big tech companies.
The group hopes to expand the digital ads to 36 states over the next two weeks, but did not disclose how much it’s investing in the campaign.
— More news from the public sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Intellectual Property will host a hearing on how to make the patent system stronger on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m.
— Coming soon:
- The Senate Judiciary will host an oversight hearing on the enforcement of antitrust laws on September 17 at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
- The Senate Judiciary will host a hearing to “explore issues relating to competition in technology markets and the antitrust agencies’ efforts to root out anticompetitive conduct.” on September 24
Apple on Tuesday unveiled new cheaper watches and iPhones and refreshed entry-level iPad. More from Heather Kelly and Reed Albergotti: