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The Technology 202: One of Silicon Valley's top challengers is up for a key Justice Department position

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with Aaron Schaffer

A formidable advocate for civil rights change in Silicon Valley will today face a congressional grilling after President Biden nominated her for one of the top positions at the Justice Department. 

Vanita Gupta, a veteran civil rights lawyer, emerged in recent years as one of the most prominent advocates for change at tech companies including Facebook, prominently criticizing the company's handling of violent rhetoric, hate speech and political misinformation. 

In her previous role as the chief executive of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, she was among a small number of civil rights leaders who met with top Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg to urge them to tackle pressing issues affecting Facebook users from minority communities, such as voter suppression. 

Gupta's experience could be an asset as DOJ is increasingly drawn into thorny tech issues. 

Gupta is up for the role of associate attorney general just months after DOJ brought a historic antitrust complaint against Google. Justice has also reviewed the market positions of other tech companies, and under the Trump administration, it made recommendations to Congress about how to overhaul Section 230, a key legal provision shielding tech companies from lawsuits for posts people share on their platforms. 

Gupta could approach diversity in tech in a more nuanced way  – especially after her sit-downs with top Facebook executives, work on campaigns like the summer's Facebook advertising boycott and efforts to work with companies including Airbnb on civil rights issues.

Laura Murphy, president of Laura Murphy & Associates, who has conducted civil rights audits of both Facebook and Airbnb, said Gupta would be the rarer Washington official who actually has a deep understanding of tech issues.

Murphy predicted Gupta would bring a “scalpel” to regulating the tech industry instead of  the sledgehammer-style calls for regulation common in Washington. 

Gupta is among a group of tech critics that Biden recently nominated. 

Gupta's appointment and that of other key critics signal his administration is preparing to take a very different approach to regulating technology than the Obama administration's hands-off posture. Biden is preparing to tap Lina Khan as a new Democratic member of the Federal Trade Commission, boosting a key antitrust scholar who has advocated for fierce scrutiny of Amazon and other tech giants, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on condition of anonymity with my colleague Tony Romm. 

(Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Tim Wu, another critic of tech industry's power who coined the term “net neutrality,” confirmed last week that he is joining the White House to work on competition and technology policy on the National Economic Council. 

Politico first reported Biden tapping Wu and Khan. 

Gupta's track record on tech issues could attract the attention of lawmakers at today's hearing. 

Her experience is a draw for Democrats, who increasingly want to crack down on Facebook and other social media companies after the violent rhetoric on their platforms exploded into the real world during the Jan. 6. Capitol attacks. But it could further alienate Republicans, who have criticized tech companies for going too far in removing harmful content, baselessly claiming they're trying to silence conservative voices. 

Conservative media has already zeroed in on Gupta's work in Silicon Valley. The Federalist last week ran a headline saying she “urged Facebook for more censorship,” referencing her 2018 letter calling on Facebook to ensure its platform was not used to stoke bigotry or racial violence. 

Murphy said Gupta has always taken a holistic view of the issues impacting the tech companies, and has frequently sought to protect both free expression and other key rights, such as voting rights. 

Today's hearing is expected to highlight partisan clashes over how DOJ should broadly approach civil rights, according to my colleague David Nakamura. In the weeks since her nomination, Gupta has been the target of a negative advertising blitz funded by conservative groups, but those ads have largely focused on her work on law enforcement issues and not her tech ties. 

Gupta did not respond to a request for comment for this article, and her prepared testimony did not specifically address her previous work on social media issues. However, Gupta did commit to ensuring fair competition at a time when Justice is challenging Silicon Valley's power.

Our top tabs

Union success in Alabama could fuel more organizing drives around the country. 

Unionization efforts at Amazon are spreading as workers in Bessemer, Ala., vote on the company's first unionization election in the United States in seven years. But Amazon is using familiar tactics to fend off the drive, Jay Greene reports. 

The company is worried that if it can’t snuff out the sparks of unionization efforts at one warehouse, they could grow into wildfires hitting other warehouses, a former Amazon executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about internal policy said, including in Iowa, Minnesota and New York. The company specifically fears losing agility when it is forced to abide by strict contracts.

“That economic thing becomes fundamental,” the executive said.

Unions however are optimistic about the Alabama drive’s chances, and the push has high-profile defenders, including President Biden.

(Amazon CEO Bezos owns The Post.)

Google spinoff Waymo simulated real-world crashes with its self-driving cars, and they performed far better than humans. 

The company re-created fatal crashes in Arizona and found that its artificial intelligence technology would have “avoided or mitigated” 88 out of 91 simulated crashes, The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins reports

The company released the data in hopes of pushing the autonomous vehicle industry and policymakers to develop a framework for evaluating their safety. Regulators have been grappling with how to handle autonomous vehicles for years.

In Waymo’s study, which was not peer-reviewed, cars were able to avoid simulated crashes involving a pedestrian or cyclist. However, they couldn’t avoid crashes where Waymo cars were rear-ended — situations where, according to Waymo head of field safety Matthew Schwall, “there’s not a lot that the responder role can do.”

A Chinese drone giant could lose its market dominance after U.S. government pressure and staff departures.

Some key DJI managers have left the company to work for competitors, compounding the drone giant’s troubles in the wake of the Trump administration’s blacklisting of the company, Reuters’ David Kirton reports. Around a third of the company’s North American staffers were laid off last year, in a sign of the company's growing problems. 

“It’s not an easy decision to leave the market leader that’s really far ahead of everyone else,” Romeo Durscher, DJI’s former U.S.-based head of public safety who now works at Swiss competitor Auterion, said. “But those internal battles were distracting from the real purpose and in 2020 it got worse ... we lost tremendous talent at DJI and that’s very unfortunate.”

In February, DJI’s head of U.S. R&D left, and the company also laid off the remaining R&D staff, about 10 people, at a key U.S. research center in Palo Alto, Calif. DJI said it reduced staffing in Palo Alto as a reflection of the company’s “evolving needs”.

“We thank the affected employees for their contributions and remain committed to our customers and partners,” it said, also noting that its sales in North America were growing. DroneAnalyst has estimated that the company controlled as much as 90 percent of the North American consumer drone market.

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Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing on President Biden’s nominations of Lisa Monaco and Vanita Gupta to top Department of Justice positions today at 9 a.m.
  • The Aspen Institute hosts an event on international Internet blackouts today at noon.
  • A Senate Judiciary Committee panel holds an antitrust hearing on Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • The Brookings Institution hosts an event on the government’s role in reducing bias in algorithms on Friday at 9 a.m.
  • A House Judiciary committee panel holds a hearing on technology competition and the press on Friday at 10 a.m. Microsoft president Brad Smith is expected to testify.
  • Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, the chairman of a government commission on artificial intelligence, testifies with other commissioners at a joint hearing on Friday at 11 a.m.

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