Biden’s new tech picks are steeped in civil rights. That spells trouble for Silicon Valley.

President Biden tapped a nominee steeped in debates around civil rights for a key role at the federal government’s top tech watchdog, the latest indication his administration could bring newfound scrutiny to how Silicon Valley’s products may perpetuate racial and ethnic disparities.

Alvaro Bedoya, a former Senate aide who has spearheaded research at Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology on how surveillance technologies harm marginalized communities, has been nominated to the Federal Trade Commission, Drew Harwell reports

Bedoya would add to a growing roster of digital equity specialists that Biden has picked to help lead the FTC, Justice Department and Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which steer much of the administration’s tech policy efforts.

That includes Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, a veteran civil rights lawyer who criticized how tech companies handle hate speech and misinformation; and OSTP Deputy Director for Science and Society Alondra Nelson, a renowned social scientist whose research probed how technology affects communities of color. 

In those roles, the three officials would have a big say in how those government entities approach issues that include discrimination in data collection, civil rights abuses and hate speech on social media, as well as the lack of racial, ethnic and gender diversity in STEM fields.

Bedoya has focused his research and advocacy on algorithmic discrimination, how tech companies facilitate discrimination by tracking users’ identifiers such as race and ethnicity, and how technologies such as facial recognition software can enable racial profiling. Bedoya has also been a vocal critic of how agencies, including the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), uses digital systems to find and track immigrants.

If confirmed to the FTC, Bedoya would serve in its’ Democratic majority and control a key vote as the agency considers new regulatory actions against tech companies over how they harvest and use consumer data, among other practices. 

Bedoya’s appointment “is a clear sign that the Biden administration understands the urgent need to build civil rights capacity” at the FTC, said Alejandro Roark, executive director of the nonprofit Hispanic Technology & Telecommunications Partnership (HTTP). 

“He really has led the conversation and scholarship about the dangers and disproportionate negative impact on communities of color” of different technologies, he added.

Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) noted in a statement that Bedoya “has been a perceptive, energetic champion for the privacy of everyone who uses or is impacted by technology, especially the most vulnerable in our society.”

Bedoya’s nomination highlights another trend: Biden has extended his pledge to prioritize diversity as he fills out the executive branch to his tech policy picks, something Democratic lawmakers and advocates had pressed him to do, as I reported in January

Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.), one of six Hispanic lawmakers in the upper chamber, told The Technology 202 that Biden’s selection “reinforces his commitment that the United States is at its strongest when our nation’s public servants reflect the full diversity of the American people.”

Bedoya, who was born in Peru, would be one of only a few racial or ethnic minorities ever to ascend to the title of commissioner at the FTC, which has a historically poor track record of representation in its upper ranks. Lina Khan, who Biden tapped to chair the FTC earlier this year, is of Pakistani descent. Gupta, the associate AG, is of Indian descent.

All of them have been hailed for their long track records of holding tech companies accountable, and for doing so while focusing on how technologies affect marginalized communities. 

Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-N.Y.), second vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said Bedoya’s appointment dispels any notion that you can’t always find qualified minority candidates for top roles in technology and other fields.

“This guy has it all, and I feel very strongly that in all fields there's a great degree…of highly-trained and professional people of diverse backgrounds that could compete on their merit and get those positions,” he said. “You just got to basically look for it and make the effort.”

But the heat’s not off Biden just yet. Roark said advocates are waiting to see if his pledge to picking leaders that are both diverse and steeped in equity issues will extend to his decision on a fifth commissioner at the FCC. 

As The Technology 202 has reported, Biden has been historically slow to appoint several key telecom picks, including at the FCC. 

Roark said HTTP is hoping to see Biden appoint “Latino champions” to the agency, citing the FCC’s key role on issues like boosting diversity in media ownership, among others. HTTP and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have urged the Biden administration to tap Felix Sanchez, chair of the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts, for the fifth slot.

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Facebook gives high-profile users more room to get around its rules

Facebook’s “cross check” or “XCheck” program exempts some high-profile users from the platform’s rules and allows them to skirt the company’s normal enforcement mechanisms, the Wall Street Journal’s Jeff Horwitz reports. Popular social media personalities like Brazilian soccer star Neymar, former president Donald Trump and his son, Donald Trump Jr., and Doug the Pug have been included in the program.

“We are not actually doing what we say we do publicly,” an internal, confidential review said. “Unlike the rest of our community, these people can violate our standards without any consequences.”

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone told Horwitz that the company is working to address XCheck’s issues and Horwitz’s story used outdated internal documents.

The FEC sided with Twitter and Snapchat in decisions that could affect how social media platforms deal with elections

The Federal Election Commission found that Twitter “credibly explained” that its decision to restrict sharing of an article on Hunter Biden was commercial and not political, the New York Times’s Shane Goldmacher and Kate Conger report. The ruling could give social media giants more flexibility when it comes to content moderation decisions that are made during federal elections.

The commission also dismissed claims that Twitter illegally “shadow-banned” some users and labeled former president Donald Trump’s tweets. The allegations were “vague, speculative and unsupported by the available information,” the FEC wrote. It also rejected a Trump campaign complaint that Snapchat gave an improper gift to the Biden campaign when it said Trump couldn’t go on its Discover platform.

The Republican National Committee is “weighing its options for appealing this disappointing decision,” RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn told the Times. A Trump spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment, and Twitter and Snapchat declined to comment.

Apple updated its software, which was exploited by hackers

NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was able to secretly infect Apple iPhones, MacBooks and Apple Watches by exploiting the bug, Craig Timberg, Drew Harwell and Reed Albergotti report. The hack, which had been used since at least February, could renew pressure on NSO Group and the Israel government, which approves export licenses for Pegasus.

The exploit used Apple's iMessage chat app to infect Apple users. “Chat programs are quickly becoming a soft underbelly of device security,” said John Scott-Railton, a researcher for Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and alerted Apple to the bug. 

NSO's customers use Pegasus in targeted attacks, including against dissidents and journalists, according to reporting by The Washington Post and media partners. Apple said in a statement that the bug was “not a threat to the overwhelming majority of our users,” but the company will “continue to work tirelessly to defend all our customers.” NSO Group declined to comment in detail on Citizen Lab's report, only saying that it “will continue to provide intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world with lifesaving technologies to fight terror and crime.”

Rant and rave

Responses to the Wall Street Journal report on how Facebook treats its high-profile users varied greatly. The New York Times' Ryan Mac:

Writer Andy Orin:

Here’s how Facebook's Oversight Board responded to the report, which said Facebook misled the board on the scope of the program:

Facebook spokesman Andy Stone, who also told the Wall Street Journal that the company has been transparent with the board:

Inside the industry

Competition watch

Trending

Daybook

  • The Stanford Internet Observatory hosts an event on end-to-end encryption proposals at noon today. 
  • Bruno Lasserre, the Chief Justice and Vice President of France’s Council of State, discusses online privacy policy at an Atlantic Council event on Sept. 15 at 9:15 a.m. 
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute holds an event on high-risk AI on Sept. 15 at 1:30 p.m.
  • Former Undersecretary of State Keith Krach and former U.S. Agency for International Development deputy administrator Bonnie Glick speak at a Center for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue event on semiconductors and supply chains on Sept. 21 at 9:10 a.m.
  • SEC Chairman Gary Gensler discusses cryptocurrencies at a Washington Post Live event on Sept. 21 at noon.

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