with Tonya Riley

The Google lawsuit may be just the beginning of a new era of tech regulation in Washington.

The Justice Department yesterday accused the tech giant of using special agreements and other problematic tactics to secure dominance in online search. The suit is widely seen as the most significant antitrust action in the more than two decades since government regulators first sued Microsoft. 

The lawsuit could mark a key inflection point in Washington’s flailing efforts to regulate Silicon Valley. 

Scrutiny of the tech industry has ballooned in the nation's capital in recent years, but until now federal regulators have passed little meaningful legislation or other penalties targeting the companies for perceived transgressions. Consumer advocates and legal experts say the DOJ broadside is an early sign that could be changing. 

“This lawsuit’s filing is an indication of the end of the beginning,” David Dinielli, a senior adviser at the Omidyar Network, which was started by the eBay founder and has advocated for greater antitrust scrutiny of Silicon Valley, told me. “We’ve been in a period of awakening about technology and its dominance. I view this lawsuit that this awakening period is ending, and we’re entering a phase of action.”

The Google case will probably trigger a years-long legal battle between the Mountain View, Calif., behemoth and regulators. 

The case could also shape the future of Google's business, but it's expected to be a key test of federal regulators' ability to effectively police the tech industry. 

“At stake is no less than Washington’s power and political willingness to watch over Silicon Valley, so the government’s gambit against Google stands to test whether roughly century-old antitrust rules are sufficiently powerful to keep the country’s technology giants in check,” my colleague Tony Romm writes this morning. 

That could have broad implications for other tech giants in regulators' glare, including Facebook, Apple and Amazon. (Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post). 

“I think it's inevitable that their practices will face severe scrutiny, some of it could be antitrust cases like the Google case, Gene Kimmelman, a senior adviser to the consumer group Public Knowledge and a former DOJ antitrust official, told me. I think we're going to see multiple lawsuits and increasingly legislation to address some of the anticompetitive practices that smaller players are facing in the digital marketplace.”

Even lengthy legal wrangling could put greater pressure on lawmakers to be more aggressive on tech issues. 

Congress may be able to act more swiftly than the courts to address some of the antitrust concerns that have been raised about Google and other tech giants, experts say. 

“The filing of the suit, and the fact that there's now a clear, demonstrable danger of competition will unleash a variety of new policy proposals to start breaking down the practices of the dominant players that inhibit innovation and leave no room for smaller players in the marketplace,” Kimmelman told me.

No matter if Republicans or Democrats control Congress next year, there is political appetite to act on tech issues but for very different reasons. Republicans are focused on allegations of political bias and content moderation by tech companies, based on specious evidence that is widely denied by the tech companies. Democrats, meanwhile, are more concerned about competition issues and the rise of extremism on social media. 

Washington lawmakers may be able to learn from their European counterparts as they seek to rein in Silicon Valley. European regulators have been far more aggressive than their U.S. counterparts in taking antitrust action against American tech behemoths, and they've fined Google more than $9 billion. But experts say those efforts have not gone far enough to spur greater competition in the marketplace, and U.S. lawmakers should be closely watching steps the European Union is taking now to step up regulation of the tech sector. 

“We're a bit behind in our lawsuits, but we should leapfrog ahead and anticipate that we will need broader regulatory tools to really rein in the abusive practices on digital platforms,” Kimmelman said. 

Congressional lawmakers say they're emboldened by the DOJ suit.  

Rep. David N. Cicilline of Rhode Island, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, told Tony the suit highlights the need to for lawmakers to move forward with updates to federal antitrust law.

I think it underscores again the importance of Congress to conduct its policymaking responsibilities, to move forward with a set of recommendations, he said. Cicilline’s staff just released a key report on their findings from a House investigation into competition in the tech industry a few weeks ago. 

Lawmakers from both parties expressed their support for the antitrust case a rare feat in Washington just two weeks before a highly contentious presidential election and amid a high-stakes battle over the future of the Supreme Court. 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), who has been an aggressive critic of the tech companies, told reporters the case is a chance to show that antitrust law is “still very much alive and it has an important role to play in this era. ”

More reading on the Google antitrust case and what it might mean for you:

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State officials are investigating threatening emails reportedly sent to Democratic voters in key swing states.

Authorities in Florida and Alaska yesterday probed emails that claimed to be from the Proud Boys, a far-right group supportive of President Trump, my colleagues Craig Timberg and Isaac Stanley-Becker write. But the emails instead appeared to be a deceptive campaign making use of a vulnerability in the organization’s network.

The emails told recipients the group was “in possession of all your information” and instructed voters to change their party registration and vote for Trump.

“You will vote for Trump on Election Day or we will come after you,” warned the emails, which as of yesterday, had reached voters in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Florida and Alaska.

Enrique Tarrio, the chairman of the Proud Boys and the Florida state director of Latinos for Trump, denied involvement, saying the group was increasingly moving away from the domain used in the email campaign and using another site. 

“Two weeks ago I believe we had Google Cloud services drop us from their platform, so then we initiated a url transfer, which is still in process,” he said in an interview. “We kind of just never used it.”

An AI service is making it easy for thousands of users to turn photos of unsuspecting women into fake nudes.

The chatbot, which couples a clear picture of a subject's face with realistic nude imagery, has triggered concerns about new avenues for harassment or blackmail, Drew Harwell reports.

The service, run through the encrypted messaging app Telegram, was discovered by researchers at cybersecurity start-up Sensity. The Telegram channel included a gallery of photos made by the bot including images of minors under 18.

“It’s just another way people have found to weaponize technology against women. Once this stuff gets online, that’s it. Every potential boyfriend or girlfriend, your employer, your family, may end up seeing it,” said Hany Farid, a computer scientist at the University of California at Berkeley who specializes in digital-image forensics. Farid pinned the ubiquity of the technology on male biases in tech. 

The bot’s administrator denied any wrongdoing. They disabled chat and gallery features but left the service for creating new images up. Representatives for Telegram, which hosts the encrypted conversations, did not respond to a request for comment.

The bot demonstrates how ubiquitous media manipulation, a formerly labor-intensive process, has become.

“These amateur communities online always talk about it in terms of: ‘We’re just … playing around with images of naked chicks for fun, said Britt Paris, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, who has researched deepfakes. “But that glosses over this whole problem that, for the people who are targeted with this, it can disrupt their lives in a lot of really damaging ways.” 

Facebook's recent crackdown on violent content won't lead to more bans, CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees.

The company made recent decisions to crack down on extremist groups and violent conspiracy theories in response to the increased risk of unrest and violence around the coronavirus and the election, Zuckerberg said at a companywide meeting, Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed News report. Yet there is no long-term change in how the company plans to operate. 

“Once we’re past these events and we’ve resolved them peacefully, I wouldn’t expect that we continue to adopt a lot more policies that are restricting of a lot more content,” Zuckerberg said in audio of the meeting obtained by BuzzFeed. 

Zuckerberg's comments throw water on speculation that recent removals of QAnon content, Holocaust denial and right-wing militias marked a turning point for Facebook's content moderation strategy. 

Zuckerberg also urged employees to follow Google's lead in refraining from discussing antitrust issues internally as the company faces scrutiny from Congress and the FTC. 

I just think we should make sure that people aren't just, you know, mouthing off about this and saying things that may reflect inaccurate data, or generally just are kind of incomplete,” he said.

Anti-vaccination ads continue to run on Facebook despite the company's recent ban.

An alternative medicine company, Earthley, has more than a dozen active ads against vaccines, including some spreading misinformation, Jesselyn Cook at HuffPost reports. The ads raise doubts about the effectiveness of Facebook's recent decision to ban ads that discourage vaccine use.

The ads also dismiss potential coronavirus cures. “THE PEOPLE THAT PROFIT WHEN YOU’RE SICK WILL NOT SELL YOU THE CURE,” reads one ad. “We all know that this fall they are going to be pushing vaccines and masks like crazy!”

Facebook did not immediately respond to the HuffPost's request for comment. The recent ban does not apply to ads that lobby for government policies or anti-vaccination content outside of ads.

Earthley recently received a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration for hawking unapproved coronavirus cures, which would also seemingly violate Facebook's policies about coronavirus misinformation.

A company representative defended the ads, saying they complied with Facebook's rules.

“We do not tell our audience what choice to make; we aim to provide links to peer-reviewed studies so that people can make informed decisions for themselves,” said Kate Tietje, Earthley’s lead herbalist. “We do not think this violates Facebook’s policy, nor should it.” 

Rant and rave

Good Zoom content on Twitter to purge your brain of the other thing.

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Hill happenings

A new bill will strip tech companies of a key legal shield if they amplify or recommend extremist content.

The legislation would update Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act so that tech companies that promote extremist content cited in civil actions lose their immunity. It's just the latest in a long list of proposals by Congress to overhaul the law, which protects tech companies from liability for user content.

The bill, introduced by Reps. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), responds to growing concerns about how tech companies facilitate militias and other extremists. The lawmakers cite a lawsuit brought by victims of violence during a Kenosha, Wis., protest that was fomented by a Facebook event.

Facebook and other tech companies have cracked down on violent content including the QAnon conspiracy theory in the weeks leading up the election. But the pair of representatives say that this bill would put legal pressure on the companies to act more swiftly.

“Social media companies have been playing whack-a-mole trying to take down QAnon conspiracies and other extremist content, but they aren't changing the design of a social network that is built to amplify extremism,Malinowski said. This legislation puts into place the first legal incentive these huge companies have ever felt to fix the underlying architecture of their services. 

Correction: This item has been updated to accurately reflect Malinowski's party affiliation

The digital race to 2020

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovits is helping fund a $100 million ad blitz against President Trump. 

He's one of the Silicon Valley donors backing a little-known super PAC, Future Forward, Theordore Schleifer at Recode reports. Other donors include Twilio founder Jeff Lawson, former Google CEO Eric Schmid and cryptocurrency trader Sam Bankman Fried. The group has spent the most money on television ads of any organization outside the Biden campaign itself. It's also helping push a $28 million ad campaign in Texas to back Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar.

Trump tracker

White House officials are concerned about pressure on contract for Department of Defense 5G spectrum. 

They worry a no-bid contract is being fast-tracked to benefit Rivada Networks, a company that counts prominent Republicans as investors, Jake Tapper at CNN reports. Pentagon leaders and members of Congress have also pushed back on the plan because of concerns that sharing the spectrum could harm military operations. 

The potential auction of the spectrum comes as telecommunications companies are vying for new spectrum to launch 5G networks. The Pentagon's spectrum is potentially worth tens of billions of dollars.

Inside the industry

Netflix subscriber numbers plummeted after months of pandemic-fueled growth.

The company added fewer than 2,2 million global subscribers in its third quarter, a dip from 10 million in its second, Steven Zeitchik reports. The numbers also fail to meet subscriber levels from last summer, a typical period of growth for the company. Netflix's stock price dipped 6 percent after the company released the new numbers.

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  • AI Now co-founder Meredith Whittaker joined the board of the Signal Foundation as its newest member, the company announced.
  • Pinterest added former Disney executive Salaam Coleman Smith to its board, Bloomberg reported.

Daybook

  • Washington Post Live will hold an event on the future of free expression today at 2 p.m.
  • The Technology Policy Institute Aspen Forum will take place through Friday.
  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on Section 230 with the CEOs of Twitter, Alphabet and Facebook on October 28 at 10 a.m.

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