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Technology companies have submitted tens of thousands of documents to the House subcommittee probing competition in Silicon Valley -- and more are expected on a rolling basis. But the subcommittee has only five attorneys and one staff assistant to sift through it all.
Rep. David Cicilline, the Rhode Island Democrat who chairs the subcommittee, says the small staff -- made up of three Democratic attorneys and two Republicans -- “is doing the work of a staff three times that size.”
“These are extraordinary individuals who are working very long hours to do this work,” Cicilline said in a recent interview with The Technology 202.
The small staff underscores the David-and-Goliath nature of Washington’s antitrust moment. Technology companies in the regulatory glare such as Facebook, Google and Amazon are funneling millions into lobbying efforts and snapping up antitrust experts to round out their internal teams. And Congress isn't even in the same ballpark in terms of its resources.
As Cicilline’s subcommittee races to compile a report on competition in the tech industry by the "first part" of 2020, he says he may need to request additional staff from House Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.). Its something he hasn’t done yet.
“It may well be that I'll have to seek some additional support to complete the investigation,” he told me.
Lawmakers are receiving the reams of documents from tech companies after requests for sensitive records -- including top executives’ private communications. The subcommittee in September requested Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google turn over “detailed information about their internal operations, including financial data about their products and services, private discussions about potential merger targets and records related to ‘any prior investigation’ they have faced on competition grounds,” my colleague Tony Romm reported at the time.
Lawmakers are studying whether the companies are engaging in anti-competitive practices to secure dominance in search, advertising or e-commerce. The staffers are looking for signs the companies committed wrongdoing by swallowing up or discriminating against rivals -- and to what extent the leaders participated in any bad behavior.
To be sure, the congressional probe is just one front in Big Tech’s antitrust battle, as federal agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission and Judiciary Department open their own investigations into technology companies. State attorneys general are also playing a key role, as dozens open probes into both Google and Facebook.
But there are also questions about whether federal regulators have enough resources to take on Big Tech. Earlier this year, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hosted a hearing on the oversight and enforcement of antitrust law, where Makan Delrahim, the chief of the Justice Department's antitrust division, repeatedly referred to the agency’s resources as “limited” and “constrained” in written testimony.
Some Democrats such as Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) think the government needs to devote more funding to these agencies, especially as the companies increase lobbying spending.
Facebook, Amazon and Apple are on pace to hit record-setting lobbying expenditures this year, according to a recent report from the Wall Street Journal. Google has been overhauling its Washington lobbying operation amid the fresh antitrust pressure, as well.
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: 8chan is back online. The message board known for boosting white supremacist and extremist content rebranded and is now operating under the name “8kun,” my colleague Rachel Siegel reports.
Site administrator Ron Watkins — the son of 8chan owner Jim Watkins — said rising traffic paired with cyberattacks caused some initial issues yesterday, and it wasn't immediately clear how many of 8chan's millions of users tried the service. But, he said, “We are alive."
8chan faced scrutiny in Washington after the service was used to announce attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand; a synagogue in Poway, Calif.; and a Walmart in El Paso. Suspected attackers have published screeds to 8chan’s /pol/ subforum. Yesterday, Gizmodo reported that subforum was missing from 8kun.
The site claims that anything deemed illegal in the U.S. will be removed. 8chan has struggled to stay online in recent months as web infrastructure companies have taken a stand against supporting the website. A British-based provider of server hardware kicked 8Chan offline in August.
“We took a clear pledge in making the Internet a safer place for all, and we would continue to cut entire infrastructure for any party we identify as facilitating mass shootings and extreme hate speech with intolerable consequences,” Maria Sirbu, an executive at Voxility, the tech firm that blocked 8chan from the computer servers that powered the site, said at the time.
NIBBLES: Executives from the video app TikTok have declined to testify at a congressional hearing Tuesday exploring privacy and security concerns posed by Chinese technology, my colleagues Tony Romm and Drew Harwell report. Their refusal comes on top of mounting political scrutiny from Washington for the app's Chinese parent company, potentially giving U.S. social media companies struggling to come up with a competing product a big break.
TikTok's decision not to attend the hearing was confirmed by a source familiar with the matter who spoken on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss it on the record, Tony and Drew report. TikTok did not respond to a request for comment.
The Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, a cross-government group that reviews foreign transactions involving American firms, is investigating the 2017 acquisition of American karaoke app Musical.ly, by Bytedance, TikTok's parent company, Drew and Tony reported Friday.
Meanwhile, American Internet companies including Facebook are struggling to compete with TikTok 's surge in popularity with U.S. teenagers, Jack Nicas at the New York Times reports. Facebook, whose CEO Mark Zuckerberg called out TikTok's growing influence in the United States a potential threat against free speech and American values online in a speech last month, has flailed in its efforts to find a product that can compete with the rising Chinese giant. Facebook's Instagram and YouTube may also be working on competitors, Jack reports. Snap has also started listing TikTok as a competitor on its investor filings.
BYTES: Google is staying silent as rivals Facebook and Twitter publicly clash over how to handle political advertising, Jennifer Elias and Megan Graham at CNBC report.
Google says on its website that it doesn’t allow “ads or destinations that intend to deceive users by excluding relevant information or giving misleading information about products, services, or businesses,” CNBC reports. Yet Google rakes in millions of dollars from the Trump campaign for advertising, including for the notorious ad targeting Joe Biden with false information that ignited criticism over Facebook's policies, they report. The Trump Make America Great Again Committee is Google's largest political advertiser, paying more than $8 million to the company, and the Trump campaign heavily advertises on YouTube.
A Google representative declined to comment.
Twitter announced last week that it would cease all political advertising, sparking some criticism from advocacy groups and putting Facebook on the defensive about its policy to not fact-check advertisements from politicians. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has argued it’s not the platform’s job to censor political speech, but critics say the company is giving politicians including President Trump a powerful tool to spread misinformation.
-- A group of civil rights leaders will meet with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and senior Facebook officials at his home in Palo Alto, Calif., this evening to discuss alleged voter suppression and other civil-rights concerns on the platform leading up to the 2020 election. The meeting comes as civil rights groups express renewed concerns over Facebook's handling of civil rights on its platform, especially in light of its policy to not fact-check ads from politicians.
Representatives from Muslim Advocates, National Urban League, NAACP, NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, will all be in attendance, according to news releases. The meeting will likely touch on Facebook's ongoing civil rights audit, which the company committed to last year after extensive lobbying from some of the groups attending today's meeting.
-- Accounts with ties to China, Russia and Iran have all directed thousands of tweets at President Trump's Twitter account — some of which he has retweeted — according to a sweeping investigation by the New York Times's Mike McIntire and Nicholas Confessore. Trump's habit of retweeting unverified accounts and conspiracy theorists could make the White House vulnerable to foreign manipulation, experts say.
Trump's constant exposure to social media gives users an “amazing opportunity to game the president,” former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clint Watts told the Times. “You are very clearly capable of using Twitter to entice and influence this president,” he said. “You can distort the guy’s views from your house.”
State-sponsored accounts trying to attract the president's attention “frequently promoted conspiracy theories or support for Mr. Trump’s policies,” making them hard to distinguish from authentic users, Mike and Nicholas report. One of the state-sponsored accounts retweeted by Trump wrote, “We love you Mr. President!”
Trump has retweeted at least 145 unverified accounts that push conspiracy or extremist content, more than two dozen of which have been suspended by Twitter, the Times found.
— More news from the public sector:
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— News about tech workforce and culture:
Instacart Shoppers will be walking off the job through Tuesday to protest a recent pay cut and ongoing labor disputes with management, according to an open letter to the company's founder and CEO Apoorva Mehta.
“Every year we push back as our pay spirals further down the drain, and Instacart’s valuation swells by the billions, and your net worth skyrockets. When will enough be enough?” the workers wrote on Friday in an open letter signed by more than 200 Instacart shoppers. “Because of your greed or inaction, or lack of concern, Shoppers now struggle to put food on the table and a roof over their families’ heads.”
Instacart workers have protested in previous years, most notably against the company's decision to use tips to subsidize wages. While the company ceased that practice under public pressure, shoppers say that the company has continued to tweak its compensation structure to disadvantage workers and lower wages. Workers are also asking the company to refer the default tip setting on the app back to 10 percent from five percent.
“They're always trimming from the bottom. They never trim from the top,” Silicon Valley-based Instacart shopper Vanessa Bain told Lisa Baertlein at Reuters.
“We take the feedback of the shopper community very seriously,” Instacart told Reuters in a statement.
Instacart is also battling a new California labor law that will go into effect Jan. 1 that could force the company to reclassify thousands of its contract workers as employees. The company is also supporting a 2020 California ballot initiative alongside gig companies Uber, Lyft and DoorDash that would challenge the law.
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Uber will announce its earnings.
- The Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on crime and terrorism will host a hearing entitled “How Corporations and Big Tech Leave Our Data Exposed to Criminals, China, and Other Bad Actors on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. Eastern time
- Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law will host its annual Color of Surveillance conference on November 7 from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., with a focus on the monitoring of poor and working people. You can register here.
Amazon's Echo device may have been a silent witness to murder, ABC News reports. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)