with Tonya Riley

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A shared hatred of robocalls is one issue uniting the House during a divisive impeachment inquiry.  

House lawmakers yesterday passed a bipartisan bill aimed to crack down on the fraudulent auto-dial callers by a nearly unanimous 417-to-3 vote. The legislation, known as the TRACED Act, now moves to the Senate, where it is co-sponsored by Senate GOP Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) and is expected to pass.  

Rep. Frank Pallone, the House Energy and Commerce Committee chair, co-sponsored the legislation. The New Jersey Democrat said on Twitter:


The bill's passage amid broad Congressional gridlock -- on the very day the House Judiciary Committee hosted a heated impeachment hearing -- underscores just how bad the robocall epidemic has become. Americans received more than 5 billion such calls last month alone, according to the robocall blocking app YouCall. Congress’s move to intervene could score points with Americans across the political spectrum who are fed up with the fraudsters.  

“It’s a pain in the neck to everybody — it doesn't matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican,” Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) told Politico’s John Hendel. “It’s one of those issues that’s totally bipartisan because everybody is impacted by this BS. I can’t tell you how many of them I got this weekend. It’s crazy.”

The TRACED Act would require phone companies to offer phone call verification and blocking services at no additional cost to consumers. The bill would also give the Federal Communications Commission and law enforcement greater authority to go after fraudsters, and it directs the Justice Department to launch a working group focused on prosecuting robocallers. 

My colleague Tony Romm notes on Twitter that the bill’s tougher enforcement measures would help stop scams such as an alleged insurance campaign he recently covered. More than 288 million robocalls peddling health insurance hit Americans’ phones in October, according to YouMail.  

The bill also includes provisions to specifically protect hospitals, calling the FCC to establish a working group specifically focused on protecting them from robocalls. Tony previously reported that such calls are more than just a nuisance for hospitals. There are growing fears that robocallers could overwhelm hospital phone lines during emergencies, potentially leading to a health crisis.  

Industry is throwing its support behind the bill as well. NCTA, The Internet & Television Association, praised the passage of the bill in a news release yesterday. 

"The TRACED Act is an important step to help alleviate Illegal robocalls and keep consumers safe from scammers," the trade association said in a news release. 

Congress is continuing to consider other proposals to address robocalls, Politico notes, including one plan to make it easier for consumers to sue over calls to which they haven’t consented. Phone companies and state attorneys general launched a broad campaign earlier this year to address robocalls. 

202 vs. 650


BITS: Facebook is weighing a number of potential changes to its political ads policies, including labeling ads that aren't fact-checked, limiting the number of times a candidate can run an ad, and raising the minimum number of people that a campaign could target, my colleagues Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker report.  But political strategists in both parties, who Facebook has run the proposals by, have doubts about the possible solutions.

Democrats have criticized Facebook for refusing to fact-check political ads by candidates and say measures such as ad labeling wouldn't go far enough. Republicans, meanwhile, say the proposed rules would unfairly hamstring the president's reelection efforts. 

 "The type of rules in discussion appear as yet another attempt to regulate free speech in a manner that would benefit Democrats, who do not have as sophisticated a digital strategy as our side,"  said Blair Ellis, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee.

Facebook declined to discuss any specific changes under consideration. "As we’ve said, we are looking at different ways we might refine our approach to political ads,” spokesman Andy Stone said in a statement.

NIBBLES: House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) is pushing to strip legal language that protects tech platforms from liability for online content in a new trade pact with Mexico and Canada, citing concerns that it would stymie efforts to revisit the law in Congress, John D. McKinnon and Brody Mullins at the Wall Street Journal report.  There's no indication the Trump administration will change the language, but a top tech company trade association warns doing so would be a crucial blow to innovation.

“Failing to include intermediary liability protections – which have been a part of U.S. law for two decades –  would negatively impact the countless small businesses and entrepreneurs that use online platforms to export and advertise their businesses," Michael Beckerman, president of trade group the Internet Association, wrote in a statement.

Democrats' concerns are shared by Republican colleagues including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who has also called to revisit the decades-old law.

White House trade officials told at least one group urging to remove the language that it had no intentions to do so on Tuesday, John and Brody report.

BYTES: Instagram will now require birth dates from all new users, Reuters's Paresh Dave reported. The new requirement will allow the Facebook-owned company to advertise for age-restricted products, such as alcohol, gambling and birth control.

“Understanding how old people are is quite important to the work we’re doing, not only to create age-appropriate experiences but to live up to our longstanding rule to not allow access to young people,” Instagram’s head of product Vishal Shah told Reuters. 

Instagram will also roll out additional safety features for minors, including options for blocking messages from strangers and for businesses and creators to restrict content based on age. The company will not verify birth dates provided by users, however, raising concerns about how successful the policy will be.

“We've seen with every online service that's ever tried it that age-gating is not an effective strategy to keep kids out,” Lindsey Barrett, a staff attorney and teaching fellow at Georgetown Law School’s technology clinic, wrote to NBC News. “Assuming that kids won't lie about their ages won't keep them from signing up for Instagram, so I'm not sure what the company believes this change will accomplish.”

The change comes as lawmakers in the United States and abroad criticize Instagram and other tech companies for exposing minors to inappropriate content. Some advocacy groups and lawmakers have pushed to update existing U.S. children's privacy law, which protects only users ages 13 and under. Instagram has long required users to confirm they're 13 or older to use its service.


— News from the public sector:


-- Pinterest and Knot Worldwide will restrict plantation wedding content on their websites, removing promotional language that romanticizes wedding venues that previously operated as slave plantations, Clarissa-Jan Lim at BuzzFeed News reported.

Users can still search for plantation wedding content on Pinterest, but they will now see an advisory warning that the content may violate Pinterest's policies. The Knot Worldwide is rolling out new guidelines in the next few weeks that aim to prevent wedding vendors from glorifying Southern slave history, BuzzFeed reports.

"Weddings should be a symbol of love and unity. Plantations represent none of those things," a Pinterest spokesperson wrote in an email to BuzzFeed. 

— News from the private sector:


— News about tech workforce and culture:


—  Tech news generating buzz around the Web:


— Today:

  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will host an Federal Communications Commission oversight hearing  at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Commerce subcommittee on communications, technology, innovation and the Internet will convene a hearing titled “The Evolution of Next-Generation Technologies: Implementing MOBILE NOW” at 10 a.m.
  • U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) will join the Brookings Institution’s Center for Technology Innovation for a bipartisan conversation about facial recognition technology  at 8:45 a.m.

— Coming up:

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will host a hearing "Encryption and Lawful Acess: Evaluating Benefits and Risks to Public Safety and Privacy" on Tuesday at 10 a.m.