Happy Thursday and welcome to The Technology 202! Below: Meet "Help Desk,” a new initiative our colleagues are launching to help you navigate the murky world of personal technology. But first:

Facebook to testify on kids' safety as lawmakers probe a whistleblower’s revelations

A trove of documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal exposing how Facebook’s own research found its products are harming users is rocking Silicon Valley and Washington alike, particularly a report suggesting the company downplayed how toxic Instagram is for teen girls.

Facing mounting pressure in Congress over the revelations, Facebook plans to send its global head of safety Antigone Davis to testify about kids’ safety before a Senate hearing slated for next Thursday, according to company spokesman Andy Stone.

The Journal’s “Facebook Files” series — which covers the company’s handling of online trafficking, medical information and more — has ignited a firestorm of criticism of the tech giant on Capitol Hill. But it’s the findings about Instagram’s effect on teens that has struck a nerve.

The whistleblower purportedly behind the leaks, meanwhile, is turning over documents to lawmakers on Capitol Hill and has indicated they plan to soon go public, according to a senator who’s said to be in contact with them.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said that a whistleblower who came forward to members of Congress and identified themselves as the source of the documents made public by the Journal’s “Facebook Files” said they plan to reveal their identity “at some point down the line.” 

An aide to Blackburn, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private matters, said the whistleblower indicated their plan is to go public by year’s end, potentially by testifying before the Senate Commerce Committee’s consumer protection panel.

It’s a disclosure that would draw massive interest and could have big implications for the company. Whistleblowers across the industry have put major pressure on tech companies to make changes to their policies and products, including at Facebook, Google and Pinterest. But their identities are usually tightly-guarded, and companies have cracked down on leaks. 

Any purported whistleblower could be partially shielded from fallout over the disclosures.

According to one of the Journal’s reports on Facebook, “At least some of the documents have been turned over to the Securities and Exchange Commission and to Congress by a person seeking federal whistleblower protection.” During a hearing Tuesday, a Facebook executive testified that the company would not retaliate against any leakers behind the Journal series. (It’s a federal crime to lie to Congress during sworn testimony.)

Blackburn, an outspoken Facebook critic, said in an interview that the whistleblower has given her office and others in Congress “reams of documents” shared with the Journal that her staffers are sorting through as part of their investigation into the company. 

The Wall Street Journal declined to comment.

“We hear from teachers and parents and pediatricians and child psychologists and counselors of the addictive nature of the social media apps,” Blackburn told The Technology 202 on Wednesday.

The impact of social media on children and teens has been a major source of scrutiny in Congress. Even prior to the Journal series, Blackburn and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), the ranking member and chair of the Senate Commerce consumer protection subcommittee respectively, called on Facebook to send an executive to testify about how its products affect children. 

But the series has elevated their pressure campaign, with Blumenthal repeatedly pushing Facebook’s vice president of privacy and public policy Steve Satterfield at a separate hearing on competition Tuesday to commit that the company would testify before his consumer protection panel about Instagram and kids' safety next week.

Blackburn said lawmakers have also called Google-owned YouTube and Snapchat to testify before the panel about how their products affect kids.

In a statement to The Technology 202, Blumenthal said that the upcoming “hearing will examine the toxic effects of Facebook and Instagram on young people and others,” and that, “Other social media companies have committed to appear at other hearings soon to be scheduled.”

YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said in a statement that the company is “actively working with the Subcommittee to determine a date in which YouTube can appear and answer the Subcommittee’s questions around our long record of protecting the privacy and safety of children on our platform.” Spokespeople for Snap did not return a request for comment. 

The hearing has not yet been formally announced. But expect more fireworks when it's held.

An exciting announcement

Our colleagues are launching a new initiative to provide trusted advice about personal technology: Help Desk

They’ll be writing how-tos, step-by-step guides, deep dives on your data and truly independent reviews to “answer the important questions: How does tech impact your privacy, your security, your family, your health, the environment and — yes — even democracy?,” technology columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler writes. 

The Help Desk team’s first reports are essential reading:

  • The iPhone’s antitracking protections are nowhere near as comprehensive as Apple’s marketing suggests. An investigation by researchers at privacy software firm Lockdown and The Washington Post shows that apps continue to send data to third-party trackers even when you tap the “ask app not to track” feature. It’s all part of an industry practice called “fingerprinting.” Read more here.
  • Confused about the settings you should change to stay on top of your privacy? Our colleagues have you covered here.

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Technology trade groups sued Texas’ attorney general over a law targeting social media companies

NetChoice and CCIA sued Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in federal court to block a Texas law that would prevent large social media companies from blocking people based on their viewpoints. It comes weeks after Paxton signed the controversial measure into law.

Paxton's office did not respond to a request for comment.

The two trade groups filed a similar lawsuit against Florida officials this year. A federal judge in June blocked the state from enforcing the law. The decision has been appealed.

Facebook, Google, Pinterest and Twitter are members of both CCIA and NetChoice. Vimeo is a member of CCIA and TikTok is a NetChoice member.

Apple will block ‘Fortnite’ from its App Store until a court ruling is final

It could delay the popular game’s return to the App Store by years because of the lengthy appeals process for Epic Games’ lawsuit against Apple, Shannon Liao reports. Apple said in a Sept. 10 statement that it saw District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers’s ruling in the case as a win, though she also found that Apple can’t prevent developers from steering users to alternative payment methods outside of the App Store.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney sharply criticized Apple on Twitter:

The Biden administration is meeting with the semiconductor industry as a global chip shortage shows few signs of abating

It'll be the second such summit held by the White House with chip makers and buyers in five months, Jeanne Whalen reports. The meeting comes as the shortage worsens as a result of the coronavirus.

Chip suppliers in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines are halting production because of infections of the Delta variant, industry executives and administration officials say. That could put a damper on hopes that the shortage, which is hitting automakers especially hard, could ease up.

Rant and rave

It's the end of an era at Facebook, where Chief Technology Officer Mike “Schrep” Schroepfer has decided to step down from the position. The Wall Street Journal's Joanna Stern:

Engadget's Devindra Hardawar:

Inside the industry

Workforce report

Trending

Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee discusses proposed legislation that would boost the power of state antitrust enforcers today at 9 a.m.
  • Ericsson North America President and CEO Niklas Heuveldop discusses 5G technology at a Washington Post Live event today 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.
  • The House Judiciary Committee's antitrust subcommittee holds a hearing on modern antitrust policy 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.

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