with Tonya Riley
Silicon Valley can't escape techlash even as Washington scrambles to respond to a global pandemic.
A flurry of antitrust activity in recent days shows that policymakers and regulators are still set on scrutinizing the size and power of Google, Amazon and Facebook.
One prime example: The Justice Department and top state attorneys general are likely to bring lawsuits against the search giant in the coming months, my colleague Tony Romm writes. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement that the state's probe into Google was not “slowed down by the coronavirus pandemic.”
It's a sign that Big Tech's halo effect as it assisted the government during the coronavirus crisis may already be fading.
It hasn't changed the companies' images in Washington: Potential litigation, calls for hearings and scrutiny of big deals are moving forward even though many tech experts believed the pandemic could be a turning point.
The tech industry has been actively partnering with federal and state officials to tap their vast data troves to better track the spread of the coronavirus – and of course keeping government operations running and many Americans connected during widespread lockdowns. Many prominent tech executives — including Bezos, Apple chief executive Tim Cook, Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg — served on the White House's bipartisan executive groups focused on reviving the economy. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
But tensions were on full display this weekend. Here are the recent developments to watch:
1. Regulators are taking sharper aim at the search-and-advertising titan.
Federal regulators could bring litigation against Google as soon as this summer, Tony reports. And the Wall Street Journal writes that Paxton says he wants to have the investigation into Google wrapped up by the fall. Any charges would be a significant reversal of state and federal officials' findings seven years ago that the tech titan had not violated any antitrust laws.
The Journal reports that Attorney General William P. Barr has continued to prioritize the Google probe even as the pandemic has “complicated” the work, devoting many resources to the probe. The Justice Department began taking a closer look at Google again last year when they opened a broad review into the tech industry's power, and first requested documents from Google in the fall. It's not yet clear what alleged wrongdoing the Justice Department's case might focus on.
“I’m hoping that we bring it to fruition early summer,” Barr told the Journal in a March interview. “And by fruition I mean, decision time.”
The company says it's continuing to engage with investigators. “Our focus is firmly on providing services that help consumers, support thousands of businesses and enable increased choice and competition,” Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister told Tony.
2. Amazon sets the stage for a showdown over whether Bezos will testify on Capitol Hill.
Lawmakers requested for Bezos to testify in the House antitrust investigation into large tech companies. But the company's response made no promises about whether the chief executive would testify, David McCabe reports for the New York Times.
Amazon doesn't mention his name in a three-page letter. Instead, it said it was “prepared to make the appropriate Amazon executive available to the Committee to address these important issues.”
That could ratchet up Democratic lawmakers' pressure on the company. They previously have threatened to subpoena Bezos if he does not voluntarily appear. Bezos — unlike the top executives at Facebook and Google — has never testified on Capitol Hill.
“We appreciate the response,” Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of the House antitrust subcommittee, said in a statement to the Times. “As we said in our letter, we expect Mr. Bezos to testify when called and to fully cooperate with this investigation.”
The tensions follow Journal reports that Amazon used data amassed from its third-party sellers on its platform to develop its own products, despite telling lawmakers it did not engage in such practices. Lawmakers have raised concerns the company committed perjury during its initial testimony.
3. Facebook faces new backlash from lawmakers for making an acquisition during the pandemic.
Lawmakers from both parties are sounding the alarm about Facebook's announcement that it would acquire Giphy, a search engine for animated, viral images known as GIFs. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Democrats Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) expressed skepticism about the deal, The Verge's Makena Kelly writes.
Hawley said Facebook shouldn't be snapping up more companies while it's under antitrust investigation at both the federal and state level.
“Facebook keeps looking for even more ways to take our data,” Hawley said in a statement to The Verge. “Just like Google purchased DoubleClick because of its widespread presence on the Internet and ability to collect data, Facebook wants Giphy so it can collect even more data on us.”
Warren said the deal underscores the need for Democrats' legislation that would institute a moratorium on large companies' acquisitions as the coronavirus wreaks economic havoc.
“Facebook’s acquisition is yet another example of a giant company using the pandemic to further consolidate power — this time it’s a company with a history of privacy violations gaining more control over online communications,” a Warren spokesperson told Makena.
Klobuchar called for federal regulators to investigate the deal. “Many companies, including some of Facebook’s rivals, rely on Giphy’s library of shareable content and other services, so I am very concerned about this proposed acquisition,” she said in a statement.
4. More White House opposition could be on its way as President Trump escalates his Twitter attacks on the industry.
The Radical Left is in total command & control of Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Google. The Administration is working to remedy this illegal situation. Stay tuned, and send names & events. Thank you Michelle! https://t.co/ZQfcfD3Hk9— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 16, 2020
It's not immediately clear what action Trump was referring to, but it's a sign attacks on the tech industry could continue during a heated election year. The president has long accused the tech giants of being biased against conservatives, even as tech executives promise political leanings do not influence the decisions they make about content. The president himself is one of the most prominent users of Twitter, and his campaign is running a broad digital campaign for his reelection.
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Tech billionaire Peter Thiel may be pulling back his support of Trump because he disagrees with his coronavirus response.
The Facebook board member's involvement in Trump's 2020 campaign has been virtually nonexistent, more than a dozen top officials and sources close to Trump's campaign told Lachlan Cartwright, Asawain Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay at the Daily Beast.
Thiel's company Palantir has profited off federal contracts during the Trump administration, including a recent deal assisting with coronavirus data analysis. But sources close to Thiel told the Daily Beast he's “frustrated” with Trump's public response to the pandemic.
Despite being one of Trump's most prominent donors in 2016, Thiel has yet to donate to the reelection campaign or Republican National Committee, according to federal elections filings.
“He ghosted us,” a senior 2020 Trump campaign source told them. “If anything [new] has happened, I haven’t heard about it.”
European officials are beginning to embrace Google and Apple's contact tracing technology, despite the company's restrictions.
Countries have switched to the software giants' approach after failing to create their own systems in some instances, Sam Schechner and Jenny Strasburg at the Wall Street Journal report. The aim is to build public health apps that would track whether people came in contact with someone who tested positive for covid-19.
Germany, Italy and Ireland have switched to a system compatible with Apple and Google's technology in recent weeks. Even the European Union's top tech watchdog, Margrethe Vestager, has encouraged members to embrace a decentralized approach so that the region can have a common approach that will allow for some travel.
Meanwhile, officials in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada continue to clash with Apple and Google over their contact tracing restrictions.
Public health officials say the companies are refusing to share location data that could help them stop the spread of the coronavirus, Reed Albergotti and Drew Harwell report. Company officials argue their technology was never built to digitize contact tracing and that sharing location data would violate users' privacy.
That has left public health officials in limbo. Governments in North Dakota and Alberta, Canada, that have tried to build independent apps that collect more data than Apple and Google allow have run into functionality issues. Deploying enough human contact tracing volunteers is also a challenge.
“We’re sort of at the point where we just can’t do traditional contact tracing. There’s just not the manpower,” said Tyler Shelby, a graduate student at Yale’s medical and public health schools who is working on contact-tracing software.
Far-right and neo-Nazi groups are spreading racist and false social media posts about fatal shooting victim Ahmaud Arbery.
The posts include memes and graphics that falsely claim that Arbery, a black jogger who was fatally shot in Georgia, was carrying a hammer or wearing boots instead of running shoes at the time of the incident, Souad Mekhennet reports. A video of his death shared online sparked protest, and two white men were arrested and charged in the shooting.
White nationalists have created an alternative online narrative to support their claims of anti-white bias in society. The groups, which have also attracted posts from European neo-Nazis, also shared content expressing anger that President Trump called the killing "horrible."
“White-nationalist groups have long pushed a narrative that there is an epidemic of black-on-white crime in the U.S. that has gone unreported, and that black men in particular are inherently violent and represent an especial threat to white women,” said Cassie Miller, senior research analyst for the Southern Poverty Law Center. “White nationalists are using the murder of Ahmaud Arbery to further prop up this narrative.”
An international fraud ring appears to be swindling Americans out of unemployment payments during the pandemic.
The attack appears to be the work of a well-known Nigerian fraud ring, which may have accessed the personal information needed to file the false claims from previous breaches, according to Secret Service Agency memo obtained by the New York Times. The effort could result in “potential losses in the hundreds of millions of dollars," according to the memo.
More agency news:
Inside the industry
Instagram is introducing a new feature to support mental health and wellness during the pandemic.
The company today announced it's rolling out Guides, which the company says will help people find accurate and reliable sources for topics such as dealing with discrimination that results from the coronavirus, tips on dealing with anxiety or loneliness and coping with grief. Initial partners include American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Asian-American Justice Committee, Boys and Girls Club of America, Hispanic Heritage Foundation, NAACP, National Eating Disorders Association, UNICEF and WE.
The chief executive of hedge fund Bridgewater is calling for a national innovation policy in response to the coronavirus.
“To attract private investment, policymakers should consider creating investment funds where the government bears the first loss to develop and back strategic technologies, including artificial intelligence and quantum sciences,” David McCormick writes in an op-ed in the Financial Times. “They should raise R&D tax credits and continue the administration’s efforts to remove regulatory barriers, including occupational licensing requirements.”
Rant and rave
Tesla CEO Elon Musk got a shout-out from another Trump this weekend: Ivanka.
The adviser to the president and first daughter retweeted a tweet from Musk encouraging his followers to “take the red pill.” It's not clear exactly what Musk meant, but the phrase comes from a scene in “The Matrix” when the hero is forced to chose between taking a red pill that will reveal the truth or a blue pill that will leave him in happy ignorance.
The idea of the “red pill” has also become popular on online forums such as Reddit to signal adopting sexist and sometimes conservative beliefs.
Musk, who then tweeted about taking Nyquil and Dayquil with a meme from the movie, could have been joking.
When u take DayQuil & NyQuil at same time pic.twitter.com/7AMLLMsBZK— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) May 17, 2020
But the film's director didn't find it funny.
- The Aspen Digital Institute will host an event with Facebook's Oversight Board Monday at 3 p.m.
- Data and Society Institute will host a digital discussion on the future of labor organizing Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Before you log off
Former president Barack Obama gave a virtual commencement speech to the class of 2020: