with Aaron Schaffer

A bipartisan group of senators will introduce legislation this morning aiming to help the U.S. government develop tech partnerships with allies to counter China's rising prowess in 5G, artificial intelligence and other fields. 

The bill, led by Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), would create a new interagency office within the State Department that would focus on coordinating tech strategies with other democratic nations. The office also would focus on providing alternative tech products to countries considering buying equipment or software from companies in countries that have authoritarian governments. 

The measure would also create a $5 billion fund that would support research projects between government research agencies, universities, tech companies and businesses from partner countries. 

“We underestimated the speed and sophistication of China's rise,” Warner, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in an interview. “We need to set up a structure that will allow America and our allies to find ways to collaborate on research, on standards and protocols.”

The legislation reflects Warner's growing concerns that China is increasingly a “near peer competitor” to the United States in emerging technologies. 

The bill aims to address concerns not only that China is innovating quickly, but the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly trying to influence global norms and standards for how new technologies operate. Lawmakers also want to take action amid fears that China is increasingly exporting tech products, ranging from 5G infrastructure to facial recognition software, that could be used to bolster its global reach and surveillance powers. 

Warner told me that he had been considering this legislation for years. There was increasing momentum to act after Chinese government officials and company executives tried to influence the standards-setting process for 5G technologies.

“What finally focused people's attention was 5G,” Warner said. 

Though tech standards may sound wonky, they are the underpinning of the global economy, and China is increasingly trying to use its political influence to define them in a wide range of fields, including telecommunications, electricity transmission and artificial intelligence. That's a major shift that lawmakers want to address, after the United States and its allies had largely been able to dominate such processes since the Cold War. 

The bill’s co-sponsors include Sens. Todd Young (R-Ind.), John Cornyn (R-Tex.), and Ben Sasse (R-Neb.), as well as Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). 

The $5 billion investment pales in comparison to the amount China is putting toward 5G. 

China in comparison has been making massive investments in becoming the global artificial intelligence by the year 2030, sparking concerns that the United States is falling behind in public technology investment. Warner acknowledged that this fund needs to be just the beginning in greater efforts to invest in U.S. competitiveness. 

“This is putting a stake in the ground,” he told me. He hopes that this funding would be the start, and could spur other forms of private capital and investment.

It’s significant that the partnership is bipartisan after years of former president Donald Trump's “America First” approach to diplomacy. 

Warner said the broad group of lawmakers will signal to foreign governments that there is long-term interest in these partnerships. 

“We've got to show our friends around the world that both parties support this,” he said. 

The bill also has broad support from a wide range of national security experts. 

Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state under the Clinton administration, called the bill “a powerful diplomatic tool to counter authoritarian influence.” 

“It would also promote new avenues of cooperation between democratic nations to secure a better future for us all,” she added in a statement. 

Our top tabs

Facebook is lifting its ban on political ads today.

The decision comes months after the social media company decided to cut off new political and social-issue advertising in the week before the 2020 presidential election, Elizabeth Dwoskin reports. It's a sign that the social network is lifting some of the extra safeguards it kept in the heated months after the election, the attacks on the Capitol and the inauguration. 

Facebook attracts about 60 percent of the country’s digital campaign spending, according to eMarketer.

The company initially described its decision to ban political ads as temporary, saying it would last about a week. It was eventually extended for months amid false claims by Trump that the election was rigged. Democratic groups criticized Facebook hours before its announcement, saying its “reckless and haphazard policy” of banning political ads hurt organizations and campaigns trying to give voters accurate information. 

Another major platform for digital ads, Google, told advertisers last week that it was lifting a ban on political ads that it instituted in the wake of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol. The company gets about 18 percent of the country's digital political ad spending.

Arizona lawmakers advanced a bill targeting Apple and Google’s app stores.

The bill would make it harder for major tech companies to take lucrative commissions from in-app purchases on their platforms, the Verge’s Nick Statt reports. It passed Arizona's House of Representatives in a narrow 31-to-29 vote yesterday, and will now advance to the Republican-controlled state Senate. 

The Coalition for App Fairness, which represents companies that have publicly challenged the app stores including Epic Games, Match Group, and Spotify, helped draft the legislation, Statt reports. The group called the bill a “first step toward achieving a truly level playing field for all.” 

Republican lawmakers sponsoring the bill say it would hit back against what they say are monopolistic practices by the two tech giants. Some Arizona Democrats oppose the measure.

Apple and Google launched a lobbying campaign against the bill, and the companies’ lawyers argued that it is unconstitutional, Protocol’s Emily Birnbaum reported

Google's outreach to historically Black universities fell short, highlighting the lack of Black engineers in Silicon Valley. 

The company undervalued and underinvested in Black engineers from historically Black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, Nitasha Tiku reports. The company made some changes in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests last year, but critics want the company to take a deep look into how it recruits HBCU students, a move replicated by tech companies across the country.

“Google allocated resources so disparagingly because of how they tiered — and thought of — our schools,” said former recruiter April Christina Curley, who helped lead Google’s outreach to HBCUs. Curley, who is Black, said she was fired largely as a result of raising concerns about bias against HBCU students in the company’s interview and hiring processes.

Since major tech companies began publicly pushing for increased diversity among their engineers in 2014, there has been little change in the ratio of Black engineers at those companies. The power that engineers have at tech companies is particularly notable because of their influence over product and policy development.

Google spokeswoman Jennifer Rodstrom said in a statement that “we have a large team of recruiters who work incredibly hard to increase the hiring of Black+ and other underrepresented talent at Google, including a dedicated team that partners and strengthens our relationships with HBCUs.” She also added that the company does not agree with how Curley described her firing, but said that “it’s not appropriate for us to provide a commentary about her claims.”

Rant and rave

Facebook's decision to resume political advertising raised some eyebrows. BuzzFeed News senior tech reporter Ryan Mac:

Tech journalist Nancy Scola:

Facebook policy communications director Andy Stone responded to journalist Yashar Ali about the timing:

Correction: Scola's title has been updated in this post. She is no longer on staff at Politico. 

Hill happenings

Senators blasted Amazon for its surveillance of delivery drivers.

Five senators, including Budget Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), want Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to answer a detailed set of questions about the company’s new surveillance system for delivery drivers. In February, Amazon announced that it planned to install the camera technology, which it said combines artificial intelligence and video, to improve safety. The company has been criticized for its treatment of workers and anti-union efforts. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Privacy monitor

Competition watch

Regulators are looking into Facebook’s acquisition of Kustomer.

The Federal Trade Commission began investigating the $1 billion acquisition last month, the Information’s Josh Sisco reports. The probe highlights the growing scrutiny of Facebook's acquisitions after federal regulators brought an antitrust suit against the company last year, following concerns about the company's previous acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp. 

Facebook first announced its plans to buy the customer relationship management start-up in November. Other deals that previously would have skirted by without political scrutiny, such as the company's plan to buy the animated photo-sharing service, Giphy, have attracted greater interest from Washington in the past year. 

Facebook spokesman Christopher Sgro said in a statement to the Information that the company looks forward to “demonstrating to regulators that Facebook and Kustomer would offer more choices and better services through this pro-competitive deal.” A Kustomer spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and an FTC spokesperson declined to comment.

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Mentions

  • President Biden nominated Dilawar Syed, the president and CEO of health-care AI company Lumiata, to be the Small Business Administration’s deputy administrator. Syed previously worked as an executive at Yahoo.
  • Kent Walker, Google's senior vice president of global affairs, is joining TechNet's executive council.

Daybook

  • The Senate Banking Committee holds a hearing on GameStop and trading app Robinhood on March 9 at 10 a.m.
  • The Aspen Institute hosts an event on international Internet blackouts on March 9 at noon.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts an event on the government’s role in reducing bias in algorithms on March 12 at 9 a.m.

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