Happy Friday! Below: The latest hullabaloo around 5G, and Google makes app store changes in South Korea. First up:

Facebook's facial recognition rollback shows limits of self-regulation, officials say

Facebook’s announcement this week that it’s shutting down its facial recognition system drew plaudits from privacy advocates and activists who have long warned that the technology poses major civil rights and civil liberties concerns.

But lawmakers who have led the charge to rein it in say the move also underscores the fact that tech companies and the government agencies they supply have largely been left to self-police its use for years. 

“We can’t throw up our hands and simply accept a surveillance state in which the most powerful companies and institutions in our country have amassed highly sensitive personal information about our faces and bodies,” Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told The Technology 202.

That lack of regulation has persisted even as deployment of the technology and other biometric tools has boomed at the federal level and despite a once-surging campaign on Capitol Hill to put restrictions on its use. Last Congress, a bipartisan group of lawmakers on the House Oversight Committee appeared poised to advance legislation to freeze federal use of facial recognition systems while Congress considered ways to safeguard citizens’ privacy and civil rights.

But the push fizzled after their champion, then-chairman Elijah Cummings, died in 2019. Efforts to pass new rules for commercial use of the software, meanwhile, have been bogged down amid disagreements over broader privacy protections and a legislative backlog in Congress. That’s left the technology’s skeptics searching for a path forward.

Markey, who has also advocated for a moratorium, said he’s “concerned that the proliferation of facial recognition technologies among governmental entities, law enforcement and the private sector represents a watershed shift toward increased surveillance across our society.”

A slew of major tech companies since last year have pledged to either stop selling facial recognition tools to law enforcement or to scrap their programs altogether, including Amazon, Microsoft, IBM and Facebook. The push gained traction in the wake of the protests over the murder of George Floyd last May but has morphed into a broader reckoning in Silicon Valley over how the technology can exacerbate biases and discrimination.

Facebook cited those concerns in its announcement this week, but it also pointed to the lack of regulatory road markers for companies about how to safely use the technology.

“There are many concerns about the place of facial recognition technology in society, and regulators are still in the process of providing a clear set of rules governing its use,” Facebook artificial intelligence chief Jerome Pesenti wrote in a blog post. “Amid this ongoing uncertainty, we believe that limiting the use of facial recognition to a narrow set of use cases is appropriate.”

There’s hope that the uncertainty could soon fade, though. 

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who took over as chair of House Oversight after Cummings’s death, told The Technology 202 that enacting safeguards for facial recognition technology remains a priority. 

“I am committed to finding legislative solutions to preserve privacy and protect the public interest against the problematic application of facial recognition technologies,” she said.

To pass new safeguards, advocates will need to draw support from the large bipartisan contingency on Capitol Hill that is pushing to invest more funding into researching and boosting artificial intelligence to keep pace with overseas competitors, such as China. 

Jesse Lehrich, co-founder of the left-leaning advocacy group Accountable Tech, said he’s not banking on lawmakers advancing new facial recognition and biometric rules this Congress.

“Time’s running out on the legislating period as we get toward the midterms here, so I don’t have a ton of hope that this Congress will pass new regulations on the use of biometrics,” he said.

But he and other privacy advocates are expecting the new-look Federal Trade Commission, under the leadership of Lina Khan, to get tougher on companies abusing those tools, including by crafting new regulations through a rulemaking process. 

The cause could be bolstered by President Biden’s latest nominee for the agency, Alvaro Bedoya, a prominent critic of how biometric tools can harm marginalized groups. 

“I think that Chair Khan and the FTC have made clear that they are going to set an ambitious course when it comes to rulemaking around privacy and civil rights, and I think that this certainly will be at the top of the list for anyone that cares about those issues,” said Lehrich, whose group has petitioned the agency to flex its muscle when it comes to crafting new privacy regulations. 

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Facebook is testing paid subgroups amid criticism over harms from groups

Users would be able to subscribe to the groups to access additional content, experiences or more in-depth conversations, the social media network said. The announcement comes after years of criticism over how groups operate on the platform. Critics argue groups helped delegitimize the 2020 election in the run up to the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and contributed to coronavirus vaccine hesitancy.

Facebook has countered those arguments. The company says that responsibility for the riot “lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them,” and has touted the steps it took in the run-up to the riot, like removing the original #StopTheSteal group. The company previously said it has given users information to promote reliable information about vaccines and has removed more than 20 million pieces that break its rules around coronavirus misinformation. Vaccine hesitancy among its users has decreased by 50 percent since January, according to the company.

AT&T and Verizon are delaying their rollouts of 5G technology

The companies will “further assess any impact on aviation safety technologies,” the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Aviation Administration said. The companies’ one-month delays mean their rollouts are being pushed back to Jan. 5, Cat Zakrzewski reports.

“The announcement comes after the FAA issued a bulletin to aircraft manufacturers and pilots Tuesday, warning them that action might be needed to address potential interference from the 5G expansion,” Cat writes. “Aviation groups have been warning regulators for months that the 5G rollout could interfere with radio altimeters, which allow pilots to measure how far a plane is from the ground.”

AT&T spokeswoman Margaret Boles said the Transportation Department requested the delay. The company will continue to work with regulators in “good faith,” she said. Verizon spokesman Richard Young said the company is pushing ahead with its deployment of network equipment, and “we fully expect to deploy our 5G services over this spectrum early in the first quarter of 2022.”

Google will allow app developers to get payments outside of its app store in South Korea

Developers will be able to add alternative payment mechanisms for South Korean users to make in-app purchases, Google said. The option will appear alongside the option to pay through the Google Play Store, according to the company.

Google’s announcement comes around two months after South Korea’s parliament passed first-of-its-kind legislation to ban app store operators from requiring developers to use their payment tools. At the time, Google said it worried “that the rushed process hasn’t allowed for enough analysis of the negative impact of this legislation on Korean consumers and app developers.” Apple also slammed the proposal at the time, arguing that it “will put users who purchase digital goods from other sources at risk of fraud, undermine their privacy protections, make it difficult to manage their purchases, and features like ‘Ask to Buy’ and Parental Controls will become less effective.”

Rant and rave

Eric Adams, who was elected as New York City's mayor this week, says he'll take his first three paychecks in bitcoin. Adams is also touting New York City as the future “center of the cryptocurrency industry.” New York Times columnist and Nobel Prize for Economics laureate Paul Krugman:

Jezebel's Ashley Reese:

Axios's Dan Primack:

Inside the industry

Agency scanner

Competition watch

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Daybook

  • Tim Wu, a special assistant to President Biden for technology and competition policy, speaks at the American Bar Association Antitrust Law Section’s Fall Forum on Nov. 9. Acting assistant attorney general for antitrust Richard Powers; Washington, D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and three FTC commissioners also plan to speak.
  • Former undersecretary of defense Michele Flournoy and Shield AI co-founder Brandon Tseng discuss the U.S. military's digital transformation at a Washington Post Live event on Nov. 11 at noon.

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