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LAS VEGAS — Trump administration officials this week promoted a light-touch approach to regulating self-driving cars and artificial intelligence at one of largest technology conferences in the world.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao unveiled in a speech at CES a new self-driving car policy that largely allows companies to take the wheel on advancing autonomous vehicle technology with limited intervention from the government. "It should not be the role of the federal government to pick winners or losers," she said.
Meanwhile, U.S. Chief Technology Officer Michael Kratsios warned federal agencies against over-regulating companies developing artificial intelligence during a pair of appearances here. He touted a series of AI principles that the White House released earlier this week, that stipulate the government should ensure AI is safe and unbiased but engage with industry in any rules it develops to ensure that.
“If we’re too heavy-handed with artificial intelligence, we end up stifling entire industries, and we want to make sure to foster the generation in the United States,” Kratsios said during a conference event hosted by Wired.
The industry-friendly announcements and officials’ optimistic focus on the promise of innovation stood in sharp contrast with much of President Trump's typical rhetoric about Silicon Valley. Though the president is known for his attacks and threats of regulation on individual companies, tech companies stand to greatly benefit from the laissez-faire strategy on display here as they invest heavily in artificial intelligence and self-driving cars.
Amazon, one of the companies that has been most aggressively targeted by Trump, praised the White House's AI principles in a statement yesterday. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Amazon supports the AI principles put forward by @WHOSTP. This is an important step towards creating a framework that ensures the trustworthiness, safety, and security of AI technologies while enabling continued innovation. https://t.co/Bi1C2wv1wa— Amazon Policy (@amazon_policy) January 8, 2020
The self-driving car policy drew applause from industry as well. The policy aims to get 38 different federal agencies to work together to ensure the U.S. government creates a climate where American companies can stay ahead of other international rivals in self-driving cars.
Gary Shapiro, the president and chief executive of the Consumer Technology Association that represents many large tech giants, said the policy "is proof government is prioritizing the adoption of self-driving technology."
But the White House's hands-off approach could prove controversial amid greater debate in Washington about the tech industry's unchecked rise in power and calls for greater guardrails.
The autonomous vehicle policy sought to place an emphasis on safety, but offered little in way of specifics about how federal agencies would ensure that, my colleague Ian Duncan noted.
And companies have already been aggressively rolling out test vehicles on the road. Federal investigators called for the government to do more to ensure self-driving vehicles being tested on the road are safe following the investigation of a fatal crash involving an autonomous Uber vehicle in Arizona.
National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy told Ian yesterday that the new policy did not address those concerns.
“It’s very light on content,” she said. “They say safety is their priority and that’s fantastic, but they don’t back that up.”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Facebook won't back down from its controversial policy of allowing politicians to make false claims in ads, but the social network today announced it will allow users to limit the number of political ads they see, my colleagues Tony Romm, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Craig Timberg report. The company plans to roll out the new tools this summer, following months of criticism for its handling of political ads on the platform.
The company will also continue to allow microtargeting of select audiences. The policies could renew backlash among Democrats and other critics, who have pressured Facebook and other tech companies to overhaul their political ad policies in recent months. Facebook's position diverges sharply from its tech industry peers Google and Twitter, which have curtailed political advertising tools on their platforms in recent months.
“While Twitter has chosen to block political ads and Google has chosen to limit the targeting of political ads, we are choosing to expand transparency and give more controls to people when it comes to political ads,” Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management for ads, wrote in a blog post.
The majority of “spend by U.S. presidential candidates on Facebook is for ad campaigns targeted to audiences estimated to be greater than 250,000,” Leathern writes. Still, experts say advertisers' ability to target small audience segments based on characteristics including age, gender, race, and location poses serious concerns.
“Microtargeting is what’s driving privacy abuses because it’s furthering the desire to grab as much information about people as possible from all possible sources,” Aleksandra Korolova, a computer scientist at the University of Southern California, told my colleagues. “It doesn’t serve the individual’s interest.”
Facebook also said it plans to overhaul its political ad archive, a database where it displays the paid posts purchased by campaigns and businesses. Now, the company said it would show the total number of Facebook users that an advertiser had attempted to reach with a paid post.
NIBBLES: The Trump campaign has purchased 1,000 Facebook ads since Monday touting his decision to launch a drone strike that killed a top Iranian general, Tony and Isaac report.
The ads encouraged supporters to complete an “Official Military Survey,” which collected users’ personal information including emails and phone numbers. The ads also solicited campaign donations. Facebook has removed dozens of the ads for breaking technical requirements on how ads with buttons should be presented.
Trump used the same strategy to fundraise off his impeachment. But experts and Democrats have bristled at Trump’s use of a national security issue for political fundraising.
“Growing campaign email lists based on fear and online fundraising for political gain should hardly be a priority of the commander in chief during a national security crisis,” said Graham Brookie, the leader of the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab.
“You hope that our government is making decisions based upon national security concerns and what’s best for the country, and not using that as an opportunity to gather voter data,” said Democratic presidential candidate and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump’s 2020 campaign, defended the ads. “Americans want to see their president acting decisively and defending the nation’s interests and that’s exactly what President Trump did,” he said in a statement.
BYTES: Amazon-owned home surveillance company Ring has fired four workers for inappropriately accessing users’ video data, the company revealed to five members of Congress in a letter made public yesterday. The admission -- which comes just a day after the company rolled out new privacy features at CES -- could add to existing scrutiny of the company's security practices by lawmakers, my colleague Drew Harwell reports.
The employees were authorized to view customer data but attempted to access the videos in a way that “exceeded what was necessary for their job functions,” Amazon Vice President of Public Policy Brian Huseman wrote. Currently only three employees have access to stored footage, which is kept encrypted on an Amazon server.
"Media reports have inaccurately portrayed Ring's security practices," Huseman claimed without pointing to any specific reports.
Amazon sent the letter in response to congressional alarm about a rash of security failures at the company, including hackers harassing customers through the video features. Ring only recently began requiring enhanced security protections for new devices after media reports highlighted how easy it was to hack into the technology.
But there remains "millions of consumers who already have a Ring camera in their homes who remain needlessly vulnerable to hackers," said Sen. Wyden (D-Ore.), who sent the initial letter. Wyden urged the company to make the enhanced security measures mandatory for all Ring devices.
--Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) is pushing a new bill that would cut off U.S. intelligence from any nation that allows equipment from the Chinese telecom giant Huawei into its next-generation 5G wireless networks, including the United States’ closest allies. The bill goes much farther than any previous congressional effort to get tough on the telecom that officials fear could be a conduit for Beijing’s spying and could cause friction with allies including the United Kingdom and Canada, which are likely to allow Huawei to play at least a limited role in their 5G systems.
— More news from the public sector:
— News from the private sector:
— Tech news generating buzz around the Web:
- Lawfirm Carlton Fields has hired Christina M. Gagnier to join its national cybersecurity and privacy practice. Gagnier previous serves as as a member of the Federal Communications Commission’s Consumer Advisory Committee and the California attorney general’s Cyber Exploitation Task Force.
- CES continues through Friday in Las Vegas.
— Coming up:
- The House Antitrust Subcommittee will host a field hearing on the role of competitors in the digital economy at 10am on January 17 at hte University of Colorado Law School in Boulder.
- Silicon Flatirons will host its "Technology Optimism and Pessimism" conference Feb. 9 and 10 at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder, Colorado. Speakers include FCC Michael O'Rielly and FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra.
- Mobile World Congress takes place Feb. 24-27 in Barcelona.
My colleagues Geoffrey Fowler and Heather Kelly searched CES 2020 to find the coolest and weirdest gadgets of the future. (James Pace-Cornsilk/The Washington Post)