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The Technology 202: Top CEOs want Biden to close digital divide in pandemic response

with Aaron Schaffer

The country’s most powerful chief executives are calling on President Biden and Congress to close the digital divide as they respond to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The Business Roundtable which represents the CEOs of about 200 companies ranging from Apple to JPMorgan Chase — is making the case that the pandemic has exposed some of the shortcomings of access to technology in the United States.  

Technology “became an absolute lifeline” for people to work, go to school or connect with family and friends as they stayed home during the pandemic as long as they had an Internet connection, said Julie Sweet, the CEO of Accenture and chair of the Business Roundtable Technology Committee. 

“On the other hand, it accelerated companies becoming technology businesses, which exacerbates some of the fundamental issues we’ve been facing for years, like a lack of data privacy legislation, a lack of global cooperation and the decrease in federal funding in R&D,” Sweet said in an interview. 

In recommendations released to the administration and lawmakers this morning, the executives argue that expanding Internet access is an essential part of economic relief. They call for swift action to improve broadband networks – and to protect consumer privacy, bolster the government's cybersecurity defenses and allow more high-skilled immigration.  

“These priorities are at the intersection of fundamental challenges and expected bipartisan support,” Sweet added.

Businesses and advocates are rushing to shape tech priorities in the new Congress and administration.

The far-reaching priorities are a reminder that businesses far beyond Silicon Valley and the traditional tech sector are impacted by Washington's moves, especially as social distancing continues. The Business Roundtable, which exclusively shared its main policy priorities with The Technology 202, wants Washington to: 

Promote broadband deployment and develop a long-term plan to bring all Americans online. The group called on Congress to extend some of the relief it created for families during the pandemic. The group calls for a sustainable program similar to the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which provides a monthly discount on Internet access for low-income people. The CEOs propose that the subsidy could be provided directly to beneficiaries in the form of a debit card or voucher so they can choose the service provider that works best for them. 

They also want more funding for teachers and students to buy devices for remote learning. And they're calling for the E-rate program, which helps schools and libraries obtain affordable broadband access, to be updated for distance learning when students need to connect from their homes. 

Create a U.S. privacy law that would be friendly to business. The Business Roundtable has been lobbying for federal privacy legislation for years. The group is continuing to call for federal privacy legislation that would ensure there isn't a patchwork of different state laws. “The absence of a U.S. federal privacy law contributes to an increasingly fragmented and complex regulatory landscape across the country," the group wrote.

Improve cybersecurity through better cooperation between government and companies. The recent SolarWinds breach highlighted how vulnerable top companies and government agencies remain to hacks. The CEOs are calling for significant investments to update securing federal government networks, as well as investments in a partnership between government and companies to ensure that critical infrastructure and government systems are secure. 

Establish global leadership on digital regulations. In recent years, Europe has been far more aggressive than the United States in rolling out regulation and proposals to address data privacy, competition and new digital challenges – such as artificial intelligence. The CEOs warn that increasing efforts to regulate technology around the world threaten to “balkanize” the Internet, and they warn that could have negative impact on their business.  They want the administration to address this through establishing new digital trade agreements, and coalitions to ensure cross-border data flows with “like-minded countries.”

“The Administration can advance U.S. interests by reinvigorating global engagement to set global data and technology policy standards and by reinvesting in the fundamentals of inclusion, access and collaboration that drive innovation at home,” they wrote. 

Increase federal spending on research and development. The CEOs have called the government to bolster funding n areas such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing to ensure that the United States remains globally competitive. 

Boost immigration technical workers in innovation-intensive fields. The CEOs are calling for the government to boost the H-1B system – which allows for highly skilled workers to gain temporary visas in the United States and was repeatedly under attack by the Trump administration. They want to eliminate caps on visas by country, and create a green card path for STEM graduates. The CEOs make the case that the U.S. needs to incentivize foreign tech talent to move here to stay competitive in 5G and other areas. 

Our top tabs

Facebook has created a new tool to direct users to reliable information about the Holocaust.

The social network announced that anyone who searches terms related to the Holocaust or Holocaust denial will now will see a message from Facebook encouraging them to connect with credible information off Facebook. The announcement on  International Holocaust Remembrance Day comes after Facebook faced criticism for years for taking a hands-off approach to falsehoods and conspiracy theories that denied the persecution and mass killing of 6 million Jews.

The tool will direct people to the site, which was created by the World Jewish Congress with the support of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Biden’s commerce secretary nominee called for a “whole-of-government response” to address unfair trade practices in China. 

Gina Raimondo did not commit to keeping Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei on a Commerce Department blacklist during her Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday, Jeanne Whelan reports

The Trump administration frequently used the blacklist to punish Chinese companies. Raimondo, the Democratic governor of Rhode Island and a former venture capitalist, told Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that she intends to “use all those tools to the fullest extent possible to level the playing field for the American worker,” but for Huawei would “review the policy, consult with you, consult with industry, consult with our allies and make an assessment about what’s best for American national security and economic security.”

The White House said this week that Biden is “firmly committed to making sure that Chinese companies cannot misappropriate and misuse American data” and that there is “an ongoing review of a range of these issues.”

Raimondo also expressed openness to restructuring Section 230, the 1996 law that shields tech companies from liability for content moderation decisions. “I would agree that we need some reform in Section 230 and I would look forward to working with you on that,” Raimondo said. 

Raimondo’s comments on the law, which she made when pressed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), come months after then-candidate Biden said the law should be “revoked, immediately.” 

Twitter will allow researchers to access millions of tweets in its archive.

Academic researchers will be able to view the “full history of public conversation” with a monthly cap of 10 million tweets, the company said Tuesday, fulfilling a years-long request by academics.

The company says it will manually review all applications for access to the data, with limits on who is eligible. Only graduate students, academics and research-focused employees at academic institutions with clear objectives for using the data in a noncommercial way are able to apply.

“Today’s launch marks the beginning of how we plan to support this community with unprecedented access to data that can advance research objectives for nearly any discipline,” the company wrote in a statement. “While we recognize what we’re launching today may not address all needs of the community, this is a starting point and we are committed to continued support for academic researchers in the future.”

YouTube demonetized Rudy Giuliani and extended its suspension of former president Donald Trump.

Giuliani won’t be able to make money off his video’s pre-roll ads, the company said, though he will be able to appeal the suspension, which was imposed last week, after 30 days, Gerrit De Vynck reports. The company said Giuliani violated its rules by posting misleading information about the 2020 presidential election. It comes at a precarious time for the former mayor of New York City, who on Monday was sued for defamation by voting machine maker Dominion Voting Systems. The company is seeking $1.3 billion from the lawyer as part of the suit.

Separately on Tuesday, the company announced that former president Donald Trump’s suspension on the platform would be extended for a second time, CNET’s Richard Nieva reports. “In light of concerns about the ongoing potential for violence, the Donald J. Trump channel will remain suspended,” a YouTube spokesperson told CNET. “Our teams are staying vigilant and closely monitoring for any new developments.”

Regulating social media

More than 70 racial justice, human rights and civil liberties groups wrote a letter opposing the repeal of Section 230.

Signed by Fight for the Future, Data for Black Lives, Muslim Justice League, Free Press Action, Wikimedia Foundation and other organizations, the letter calls on the Biden administration to also not make overbroad changes to the provision in response to the attacks on the Capitol. Instead, the groups encourage the government to focus on federal data privacy legislation and antitrust enforcement.                                                    

"Gutting Section 230 would make it more difficult for web platforms to combat the type of dangerous rhetoric that led to the attack on the Capitol. And certain carve outs to the law could threaten human rights and silence movements for social and racial justice that are needed now more than ever," the letter signers write. “Section 230 is a foundational law for free expression and human rights when it comes to digital speech. It makes it possible for websites and online forums to host the opinions, photos, videos, memes, and creativity of ordinary people, rather than just content that is backed by corporations.”                                               

Rant and rave

Gamestop's recent stock market fluctuations are throwing some for a loop. My colleague Gene Park:

The long take, from Facebook tech communications manager Tom Gara:

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  • Bill and Melinda Gates discuss the coronavirus pandemic at a Washington Post Live event today at noon.
  • Apple, Facebook and Tesla hold investor calls on their earnings today at 5 p.m., 5 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., respectively.
  • Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks at the Computers, Privacy, and Data Protection conference on 11:15 a.m. on Thursday. 
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds its formal organizational meeting on Thursday at 1 p.m.

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