with Aaron Schaffer

The federal government is starting to disburse more than $10 billion to bring more Americans affordable Internet. 

Tens of millions of Americans are eligible for a new “Emergency Broadband Benefit” that launched today to help people affected by the pandemic pay their Internet bills. The $3.2 billion program will pay $50 per month to cover costs for all Americans who lost some income in the last year and earn less than $198,000. People who receive food stamps, Medicaid or a federal Pell grant, among others, are also eligible. 

There's also an additional one-time $100 discount available for people who purchase new equipment like a laptop or tablet through a participating company. (My colleague Geoffrey Fowler has a helpful guide about how you can sign up).

And earlier this week, the Federal Communications Commission unanimously approved a new $7 billion program to help schools and libraries get more students online as many students continue to rely on virtual education. 

“These investments will help more Americans access online education, healthcare, and employment resources,” FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “They will help close the Homework Gap for students nationwide and give so many more households the ability to connect, communicate, and more fully participate in modern life.”

Many hope this funding is just the beginning. 

The unprecedented amount of funding is intended to produce temporary relief after the pandemic brought an unwelcome stress test of the nation's Internet infrastructure. The overnight shift to virtual school, telemedicine and remote work highlighted the persistent digital divide, and the challenges for millions of Americans who don't have a reliable Internet connection. 

“Broadband access and affordability has never been more center stage than it is now after a year from working from home and going to the doctor over telemedicine,” Jonathan Schwantes, a senior policy counsel for Consumer Reports, told Geoffrey. 

The funding – which was allocated in coronavirus relief packages that passed in December and March – is an answer to 14 months of calls from advocates and communities to take aggressive action addressing persistent gaps in Internet access and affordability. It's becoming available as vaccinations are widely rolling out in the United States, and more schools are open for in-person learning and some pandemic restrictions are easing. 

The new programs are just temporary and advocates say lawmakers need to develop a long-term program that will ensure low-income Americans can afford the Internet.  

“We’re not going back to 2019,” said said Gigi Sohn, a Georgetown Law Institute for Technology & Policy distinguished fellow and former counselor to Democratic Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The digital divide doesn’t end when the pandemic ends. We’re going to be living from now on in a hybrid world.”

There's growing bipartisan support in Washington to make long-term investments in broadband expansion. 

Broadband is one area where there is bipartisan agreement when it comes to infrastructure spending. President Biden's American Jobs Plan includes $100 billion for broadband expansion, and he's put Vice President Harris in charge of the administration's broadband policy. Republicans, however, have proposed significantly less, including $65 billion for broadband in their own infrastructure plan. 

Yet advocates for broadband expansion still see this as a positive step, and a sign Republicans and Democrats recognize there's both an affordability and access problem.  

“The pandemic has solidified a consensus, a bipartisan consensus, about the importance of broadband,” said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, a senior counselor at the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. 

Schwartzman said the temporary programs could serve as a “test case” as the White House and lawmakers weigh more long-term solutions to ensure Americans can afford Internet access. 

"This sets a path for how we can in the future address the digital divide, the inequities in coverage," he said.

The immediate challenge for the FCC will be ensuring people know about the temporary benefits they're eligible for. 

The agency's handling of the new broadband benefit is being closely watched amid the broader debate. Sohn says the program will be successful if the money runs out, because it will show the agency has been effective in publicizing the program to needy people. However, it could be a challenge to reach out to people who aren't online. She said there needs to be investment in TV and radio ads, as well as in local and foreign-language newspapers. 

“Where rubber hits road is making sure people in affected communities know this program exists and how to apply for it,” Sohn said. “You can’t do that online, you have to do that in the media that people read and people watch.” 

Our top tabs

The Biden administration announced a partnership with Uber and Lyft to get Americans to vaccination sites.

Biden announced that Americans will be able to get free rides to vaccination sites as the administration works to have 70 percent of U.S. adults vaccinated with at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by July 4, John Wagner reports

In a statement, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi hailed the announcement, saying that “soon everyone in America will be able to take a free Uber to get their shot.” 

Lyft offered more details about the plan, saying that riders will get $15 codes that “we expect to cover most, if not all, of riders’ fares.” Lyft CEO John Zimmer said in a statement that the company was “grateful to the Biden administration for prioritizing access.”

Biden praised the companies, saying that their partnership with the administration “is really stepping up.”

Facebook's new WhatsApp privacy policy is attracting scrutiny from regulators around the world. 

A German regulator has banned Facebook from processing any data from WhatsApp users, saying the messaging app’s new terms of service violate European privacy law. The Hamburg Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information issued the emergency order as Facebook rolls out a new policy that allows WhatsApp, which it owns, to share additional information with the parent company, the Financial Times’s Hannah Murphy writes

The Hamburg regulator said it found “there is no basis for processing of personal data of WhatsApp users by Facebook for their own purpose.” It added that it would try to get a binding ruling from a European regulator that would cover the continent more broadly.

WhatsApp says users who don't accept the updated terms will eventually lose some features, like the ability to view a list of chats and receive messages and calls .Facebook said it was considering its options for appealing the order. “The Hamburg DPA’s order against Facebook is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose and effect of WhatsApp’s update and therefore has no legitimate basis,” WhatsApp said. “As the Hamburg DPA’s claims are wrong, the order will not impact the continued rollout of the update.”

Meanwhile, regulators in India, which has more than a half billion WhatsApp users, are investigating the new policy, and Brazilian officials asked the company to pause its rollout in the country.

A Japanese man transformed his face into a woman's online. When he came clean, his followers liked him more. 

To tens of thousands of Twitter followers, Soya no Sohi appeared to be a young female cyclist. But in March, Yasuo Nakajima, a 50-year-old man, revealed that he used FaceApp to invent a new face and was actually behind the account, Drew Harwell and Shiori Okazaki report

Nakajima’s follower count only grew after the big reveal. But his story raises questions about authenticity online, and it highlights how artificial intelligence is allowing people to create new appearances and masquerade online with just a few taps in simple apps. Some worry these advances threaten to undermine the shared concept of truth and create new distrust between people online. 

“What should we expect from the people we meet on the Internet, where algorithms can turn practically anything into a facade?” my colleagues wrote. 

Rant and rave

The reactions to Drew's piece included questions about Nakajima's hair and skin routine. Writer Sarah Emerson:

Physician Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, pointed out that it's a story about deepfakes that doesn't end in “pure horror”:

Corinne Podger, the director and principal of the Digital Skills Agency:

Hill happenings

Inside the industry

Trending

Daybook

  • The Senate Commerce Committee meets to consider the Endless Frontier Act and the nomination of tech critic Lina Khan to be a Federal Trade Commissioner today at 10 a.m. 
  • Sen. Thom Thillis (R-N.C.), former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Gilman Louie, who ran the CIA’s In-Q-Tel venture capital fund, discuss artificial intelligence at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Thursday 3 p.m.
  • A House Energy and Commerce Committee panel holds a hearing on vehicle technology on May 18 at 10:30 a.m.

Before you log off