On Wednesday, when Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan testified on Capitol Hill for the first time since being sworn in, confidence was running high in the room that Washington’s push to rein in the tech giants was about to turn the page.
“The era of self-regulation is over. Self-regulation has threatened our democracy,” said Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chair of the House subcommittee hosting the hearing.
President Biden’s appointment of Khan and other Big Tech combatants to key federal roles is a big reason liberals are so bullish on the prospect of an industry crackdown.
But early hurdles and setbacks are highlighting the challenge of bringing those ambitions to life, as policymakers struggle to keep pace with the fast-moving tech sector.
A star of the liberal wing whose work chronicling the alleged abuses of Big Tech has earned her celebrity status in antitrust circles, Khan has given hope to critics across the political spectrum that D.C.’s enforcers might finally get tough on the likes of Google and Facebook. Her rise began with an academic paper scrutinizing whether Amazon’s conduct violates antitrust law. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
And so just days before dashing out of town for the annual August recess, House lawmakers met to consider proposals to give Khan and other regulators stronger tools to go after them.
But Khan is already facing her first major roadblock in a confrontation with the industry: After a federal judge dismissed the FTC’s lawsuit to break up Facebook in June, the agency pushed for an extension to decide if and how to refile the complaint in a way that satisfies the court’s concerns.
The judge said the FTC failed to land its argument that Facebook monopolizes the social media market, and the agency now has until Aug. 19 to significantly refashion its suit.
Facebook’s critics, Khan’s allies foremost among them, say the courts have long interpreted competition laws too narrowly when it comes to the tech giants, and it’s a puzzle that she and the commission will now need to solve if they hope to triumph in the case.
The standoff highlights a crucial tension in Washington: While lawmakers and regulators have a long history of pledging to rein in industry giants, their record of delivering is spotty.
What began as a targeted movement to address outrage over social media companies’ failure to secure their platforms during the 2016 elections has since morphed into a big tent in politics; setting boundaries for Silicon Valley is a rare issue uniting figures across the political spectrum.
Lawmakers’ concerns have spawned congressional grillings, punitive new legislative proposals, major lawsuits and even historic fines, all targeting tech companies’ practices. But reining in Silicon Valley’s power is easier said than done.
Despite the sound and fury, Silicon Valley’s leaders have left the hot seat in Washington each time relatively unscathed.
Yet it’s a clash that’s reaching a historic crescendo.
Biden’s appointments of Khan, Justice Department antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter and National Economic Council adviser Tim Wu have heightened the chance that there will be more high-stakes collisions between the federal government and the tech industry. Their expansive views on issues like antitrust and competition mark a stark break from past administrations.
Meanwhile in Congress, a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers in the House is pushing to pass what would be the biggest rewrite of U.S. competition policy in decades, largely in the name of curtailing alleged abuses by the industry’s biggest players. That’s in addition to the legislation Schakowsky’s subcommittee is considering.
Even those efforts are already smacking into some of the same shifting politics and institutional hurdles that have paralyzed U.S. officials otherwise hellbent on targeting the tech industry’s alleged abuses.
Regulators will not only need to convince judges that their complaints have merit, but they’ll also need to do so over likely expensive and protracted legal battles that will test their limits.
House lawmakers will need to persuade skeptics on both sides of the aisle to sign onto their antitrust push and fend off a fierce lobbying campaign by the industry while doing so. And they’ll face even steeper odds in the Senate, where bills typically require a three-fifths majority to pass.
Schakowsky’s warning on Wednesday mirrored threats leveled against tech CEOs dating as far back as 2018, but it dramatically understated the challenges facing officials looking to bring tech behemoths to heel.
For the past three-plus years, I’ve covered these confrontations up close, breaking news about blockbuster hearings, major congressional reports, big industry policy shifts, bipartisan alliances imploding and backroom politicking. I’m looking forward to bringing more of that reporting and these insights into your inbox daily.
I’ll use my years of experience covering tech, politics and policy to deliver exclusive interviews with key decision-makers and explain the issues puzzling government and industry leaders, from debates around free speech online to questions about ethics and emerging technologies.
And who knows, we may just answer whether the era of “self-regulation” is over.
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Zoom agreed to pay $85 million and improve its security as part of a legal settlement.
Subscribers in a proposed class-action lawsuit would be able to receive partial refunds on their Zoom subscriptions as part of the settlement, Reuters’s Jonathan Stempel reports. The lawsuit alleged that Zoom shared the personal data of users with social media sites and made it too easy for people to Zoom-bomb, or disrupt, Zoom calls.
Under the proposed settlement, Zoom would be required to develop a system for users to report Zoom-bombers, create a process for communicating with law enforcement about them, and develop new security and privacy features.
Zoom has denied wrongdoing, and the proposed settlement needs to be approved by a federal judge. The company has faced scrutiny by U.S. regulators, including the FTC, which finalized a settlement with the company earlier this year.
Mexican authorities used facial recognition technology to help U.S. law enforcement track fugitives.
Authorities in Mexico’s Coahuila state said they used a network of more than 1,000 cameras produced by Chinese surveillance company Dahua Technology to track two people accused of setting fires in the wake of the unrest following the murder of George Floyd, the New York Times’s Kashmir Hill reports. The U.S. government cannot use Dahua products because they were blacklisted by the Trump administration in 2019 for their alleged use in “China’s campaign of repression, mass arbitrary detention and high-technology surveillance.” Dahua has denied the allegations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Adam Schwartz said he had not heard of another case where it appeared that the U.S. government asked another government to do facial recognition and called the case “very upsetting.”
U.S. law enforcement declined to comment on the use of facial recognition in the search. “We ask for assistance with fugitive investigations from other countries every day and cannot direct which sources and methodologies they may employ to assist in fugitive investigations,” U.S. Marshals spokeswoman Lynzey Donahue said.
The White House recruited dozens of TikTok stars, streamers and millennial celebrities to promote coronavirus vaccinations.
The efforts come as the White House races to promote the vaccines to young people, of which fewer than half in the United States are vaccinated. But experts warn that the campaign is still an uphill battle against people who have made it their mission to sow doubt about the vaccines on social media, the New York Times’s Taylor Lorenz reports.
“That’s the asymmetric passion,” said Renee DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “People who believe it’s going to hurt you are out there talking about it everyday. They’re driving hashtags and pushing content and doing everything they can do.”
The Biden administration has explored using online influencers to educate users about the vaccinations since January, White House digital strategy director Rob Flaherty said. State and local governments have also paid local influencers to promote the vaccinations on social media, Lorenz reports.
Rant and rave
YouTube restricted Sky News Australia from uploading new videos for a week after finding that the news outlet violated its rules on coronavirus-related misinformation, the BBC reports. The outlet’s digital editor, Jack Houghton, wrote that it was punished for “publishing opinion content the tech giant disagrees with” and blasted YouTube’s power. Writer Glenn Greenwald:
Others applauded the decision — and criticized Houghton’s article, which invoked Auschwitz, a World War II death camp run by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue’s Elise Thomas:
Eureka Report’s Alan Kohler:
Inside the industry
- Facebook has brought on Liz Kennedy as its voting rights manager. Kennedy previously worked as the Center for Secure and Modern Elections’ senior policy adviser. She began working for Facebook in July.
- North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) speaks at a Heartland Forward event on digital equity today at 1 p.m.
- NetChoice hosts an event on the implications of U.S. lawmakers and regulators adopting a European antitrust approach on Tuesday at noon.
- The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee discusses a bill to create a Department of Homeland Security task force for countering deepfake technology and a proposal to require government acquisition officials to get artificial intelligence training on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
- Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger speaks at a Washington Post Live event on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m.
- Visa CEO Al Kelly discusses financial technology at a Washington Post Live event on Thursday at 2 p.m.
- The Wikimedia Foundation hosts an event on content moderation on Thursday at 8 p.m.