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That became abundantly clear at an antitrust hearing Tuesday, as senators took a major detour from its focus — ostensibly about how tech giants’ troves of data hurt competition — to lay into Facebook over explosive reporting suggesting it downplayed Instagram’s toxic impact on teen girls.
A majority of the senators who attended used part of their questioning to grill Facebook about a Wall Street Journal report that the company’s own research showed Instagram is harmful for a sizable portion of its young users, particularly teenage girls.
In a focused bipartisan rebuke, Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Mike Lee (R-Utah), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) all drilled into Facebook’s vice president of privacy and public policy Steve Satterfield over the findings.
The remarks showed the Journal’s reporting struck a deep nerve on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have found rare common ground in the need to boost kids’ online safety.
Blumenthal repeatedly pressed Satterfield to commit that the company will testify at a hearing before his Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee on Sept. 30 about how its products may harm children and about its plans to launch a version of Instagram tailored to kids.
Satterfield declined to make the commitment, but said they’d work with Blumenthal’s office. The Facebook privacy chief repeatedly told lawmakers, “these aren’t the issues that I work on.”
“I came here today to talk about data and antitrust,” he said later. But at another point Satterfield said he did “understand the frustration and the concern that we’re hearing about these reports.” And he acknowledged he is “involved in privacy issues” that impact teens on the platform.
But the remarks did little to assuage the ire of the panel’s lawmakers, who accused the company of concealing damaging data about its products and profiting off teen harm.
Lee, the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, said the Journal’s reporting showed “shocking, absolutely stunning lapses in Facebook’s ability to protect Facebook’s consumers, its users, from being harmed by using its platforms.” He linked the issue to competition, arguing the incident shows Facebook acts with relative impunity.
“This too looks like the behavior of monopolies, a monopolist that’s so sure its customers have nowhere else to go that it displays a reckless disregard for quality assurance, for its own brand image and even just being honest with its own users about the obvious safety risks that it’s subjecting its users to, particularly its teenage users,” Lee said.
Facebook has pushed back on the Journal’s reporting, and Satterfield said Tuesday “it misses the mark in terms of what we’re trying to do in the matters it describes.”
Hearings featuring tech executives often veer off in countless directions as lawmakers take up a litany of grievances with the companies. But rarely, if ever, have they strayed off course so singularly into one separate topic.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who convened the session, focused her questioning on concerns that the tech giants are hoarding so much data that it serves as a major barrier to entry for potential competitors, thus harming competition. Lee also dove into the subject, as did other panel members.
But the momentum quickly swung the other way as more and more lawmakers lined up to publicly excoriate Facebook over the Journal’s findings.
Allies of the companies noted the session strayed way off-topic from the issue Facebook had originally agreed to testify on.
“It started off as a hearing about data and competition, but quickly veered into the topics covered by last week’s Journal stories,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the Chamber of Progress, a center-left pro-industry advocacy group that’s funded by Facebook, Google and other tech companies.
He added, “Competition might have been on Senator Klobuchar’s mind, but a lot of other members wanted to talk about kids.”
Facebook’s latest congressional scolding also served to shield another tech giant, Google, which sent an executive to testify but dodged the brunt of the scrutiny.
“If you absolutely have to testify before Congress, do it on a witness panel with Facebook,” Nu Wexler, a Facebook, Google and Twitter communications alum, quipped on Twitter.
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The Senate inched closer to confirming FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra as a consumer finance regulator
The Senate narrowly advanced onto the floor Chopra’s nomination to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on Tuesday evening. Chopra now faces a final confirmation vote as early as next week, Tory Newmyer reports.
The move comes as the Senate prepares to consider Alvaro Bedoya, who President Biden chose to nominate for Chopra’s FTC seat this month. Democrats on the FTC maintain a 3-2 majority. Chopra faced senators at a March confirmation hearing, but his final confirmation has been stalled since.
Facebook will boost pro-Facebook posts in news feeds amid a surge of bad publicity
Executives at Facebook were stunned when CEO Mark Zuckerberg signed off on “Project Amplify” this year, the New York Times’ Ryan Mac and Sheera Frenkel report. The company has responded to waves of bad publicity by distancing Zuckerberg from scandals, promoting its brand and changing the ways it distributes data.
Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne denied that the company’s approach had changed. “People deserve to know the steps we’re taking to address the different issues facing our company — and we’re going to share those steps widely,” he said.
The report came as Facebook’s Oversight Board called on the company to be more transparent about how it treats politicians and high-profile users who break its rules after a Wall Street Journal report on the exemptions it grants, my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin and Cat Zakrzewski report.
A U.S. government panel is reviewing Zoom’s ties to China
The Justice Department says an interagency committee has to review whether the company’s $15 billion deal to buy cloud call-center firm Five9 would pose a national security risk, the Wall Street Journal’s Kate O’Keeffe, Aaron Tilley and Dawn Lim report. It comes as Zoom continues to be under federal investigation for its relationship with China’s government, according to its latest regulatory filings.
“The Five9 acquisition is subject to certain telecom regulatory approvals,” a Zoom spokeswoman said. “We have made filings with the various applicable regulatory agencies, and these approval processes are proceeding as expected.” The company expects the deal to be approved in the first half of 2022. Five9, the Justice Department and FCC declined to comment.
Rant and rave
Facebook spokesman Joe Osborne refuted some of the New York Times' reporting on its news feed changes:
The story the Times could’ve written is that Facebook ran a small test of an informational unit on Facebook in three cities -- clearly labeled as from Facebook on the top of the unit. Here’s one image: pic.twitter.com/RvYsS5bD8c— joe osborne (@joeosborne) September 21, 2021
Some people, like the Shorenstein Center's Jane Lytvynenko, were unsettled by the opaqueness of it all:
The unsetting part about this scoop is that Facebook's newsfeed is very opaque, so if it's bumping its own propaganda, it would be very difficult to know from the outside. Especially, as Ryan and Sheera note, with the cuts to public data availability. https://t.co/3T1ONRKwg0— Jane Lytvynenko (@JaneLytv) September 21, 2021
Microsoft's Alex Russell:
Give Zuck his due; this is absolutely going to increase (regulatory) engagement:https://t.co/HHLAS8nrz2— Alex Russell (@slightlylate) September 21, 2021
Inside the industry
Facebook Grew Marketplace to 1 Billion Users. Now Scammers Are Using It to Target People Around the World. (ProPublica)
Huge hack reveals embarrassing details of who’s behind Proud Boys and other far-right websites (Drew Harwell, Craig Timberg and Hannah Allam)
- The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses proposed legislation that would boost the power of state antitrust enforcers on Thursday at 9 a.m.
- The House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee holds a hearing on modern antitrust policy on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- Ericsson North America President and CEO Niklas Heuveldop discusses 5G technology at a Washington Post Live event on Thursday at 3 p.m.
- A House Science Committee panel holds a hearing on researching disinformation on social media on Sept. 28 at 10 a.m.
- Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, FCC acting chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) speak at CTIA’s two-day 5G Summit, which begins Sept. 29.
Before you log off
live footage of senators questioning the Facebook executive at today’s hearing pic.twitter.com/QbcSS6kDGz— Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) September 21, 2021
That’s all for Wednesday — thank you so much for joining us! Make sure to tell others to subscribe to The Technology 202 here. Get in touch with tips, feedback or greetings on Twitter or email.