Welcome to The Technology 202! Below: Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is on deck for another hearing and the FTC wants supply chain info from Amazon and company. First:
“Mark Zuckerberg is right. Jack Dorsey is wrong,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), an outspoken critic of both Silicon Valley moguls, told me at the time.
Zuckerberg was right to buck calls for social media platforms to fact-check politicians’ ads, Cruz later wrote in an op-ed, while Dorsey was wrong to go even further and “jump on board the censorship train.”
The flare-up highlighted a pattern that played out repeatedly during Dorsey’s later tenure leading Twitter — the company at times took decisive action on polarizing issues, contrasting with competitors, even if it meant blowback in Washington.
It’s a trend that — for better or worse — may shape how officials in Washington remember Twitter’s stewardship under Dorsey, who announced his resignation Monday.
“Twitter has been willing to be out in front, even when they get egg on their face,” Emerson Brooking, a fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, said of Twitter’s direction on content issues under Dorsey.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), who represents part of Silicon Valley, called Dorsey “one of the more thoughtful people in the Valley about the role of social media companies as stewards of democracy.”
Under Dorsey, Khanna told The Technology 202, Twitter “has been ahead of the curve in labeling speech that was an incitement to violence or that was a threat to public health.”
Khanna added, “Doesn't mean that he always got it right and every judgment, but he at least understands that a lot more needs to be done in thinking through social media’s obligations to democratic discourse and the difficult decisions involved with that.”
Even so, those actions were often seen as too little and too late by critics, particularly Democratic leaders and civil rights advocates, who have long called on the company to take a more aggressive approach to combating misinformation and violent rhetoric.
“While it often came belatedly, I appreciate that Twitter has adopted some of the measures I impressed upon them, including opening up their platform to public interest researchers and labeling automated accounts,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said of Dorsey’s tenure. “I hope this transition will help usher in broader and faster changes.”
No decision exemplified the pattern more than Twitter’s call to permanently ban then-President Donald Trump after his supporters stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6. It followed years of calls by Democrats for the platform to boot Trump off for good.
Other companies were notably less decisive: Facebook suspended Trump indefinitely, later setting a timeline for his potential return, only after the case was reviewed by its oversight board, while YouTube suspended Trump for a week and later extended the move indefinitely, with no clear timetable.
As my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin and Will Oremus reported, Dorsey has been distancing himself from direct leadership for years, and major decisions are generally made by other Twitter leaders. But Dorsey has given final sign-off on calls, including the Trump ban and the political ads ban.
No decision invited more controversy, either, with Republicans skewering Twitter and the incident inflaming allegations of political bias at the social network. That highlights another staple of Dorsey’s Twitter tenure: historic political scrutiny.
As CEO, Dorsey has been the focal point of that heat. Controversies largely over Twitter’s content moderation practices led him to testify on Capitol Hill five times, more than any prominent tech CEO not named Mark Zuckerberg. That’s despite Twitter being a fraction of the size of Facebook or YouTube, whose CEO has never testified. Other rivals including TikTok, Snapchat and Reddit, meanwhile, have faced far less attention in Washington than Twitter.
But like other prominent tech companies, Twitter took a major hit to its reputation in Washington after the 2016 election — a year after Dorsey returned to the company as CEO — as scrutiny of their influence over online discourse soared.
Since, political rhetoric toward Twitter has taken a sharp turn. Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, in May 2018 and later in October 2020:
I appreciated a productive conversation w ceo @jack Dorsey of twitter Found out he follows me + we discussed how his company is making sure the platform is used properly pic.twitter.com/VPmZc3NRqT— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) May 17, 2018
Selective censorship is wrong &defies 1st amendment 2day Republicans in Senate judic Cmte authorized subpoenas for Jack Dorsey from twitter & Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook. Big Tech has demonstrated in last 4yrs they’re quick 2censor conservatives ¬ as quick 2censor liberals— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) October 22, 2020
While Dorsey is stepping down with his fair share of critics in Washington, some are still hoping to hear more from him on other issues where he’s been active, like cryptocurrency, decentralizing technology and blockchain.
Khanna, for one, said he hopes Dorsey “will continue to engage in the public sphere.”
“I expect he's gonna have many more years as an entrepreneur and technology leader in the blockchain space, in the financial services space and in the decentralization of technology,” Khanna said. “And so, you know, his impact on society I think is yet to come.”
Rant and rave
Twitter reacted in real time as Dorsey announced his resignation. Journalist Casey Newton:
The funniest and most Twitter-like thing about it replacing its CEO today is that today is a company holiday— Casey Newton (@CaseyNewton) November 29, 2021
CyberScoop's Tonya Riley:
He did the one thing none of us could: leave this cursed website https://t.co/2uwdukVGgw— Tonya Riley (@TonyaJoRiley) November 29, 2021
The Daily Show:
Don’t worry - like everyone else who quits Twitter he’ll be back in three weeks https://t.co/KBKRy3FHRL— The Daily Show (@TheDailyShow) November 29, 2021
Our top tabs
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen will testify before Congress this week
At the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, Haugen will discuss potential changes to Section 230, which shields websites from being sued over the content their users post, the Verge’s Makena Kelly reports. It will be Haugen’s first time testifying before Congress since her appearance at an October hearing where she called for modifications to Section 230 to make Facebook be responsible for “the consequences of their intentional ranking decisions.”
Haugen’s testimony will come days before Instagram head Adam Mosseri is expected to testify before a Senate subcommittee. Haugen disclosed internal documents from Facebook and Instagram showing research into the platforms’ harms, including on teen girls.
Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama are getting a second chance to unionize
It’s a major win for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), which lost a unionization vote earlier this year by a more than 2-to-1 margin and applauded the decision, Jay Greene reports. It comes after a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) official found that Amazon improperly interfered in the first unionization vote at a warehouse in Bessemer, Ala., and called for a revote.
The second election “promises to bring the same sort of high-profile campaign to Bessemer that came to the Birmingham suburb earlier this year,” Jay writes. “During the nearly two-month mail-in balloting that ended in March, the union drew support from leaders at the AFL-CIO as well as liberal politicians nationally, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Georgia gubernatorial candidate and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams.”
Amazon blasted the decision. “Our employees have always had the choice of whether or not to join a union, and they overwhelmingly chose not to join the RWDSU earlier this year,” Amazon spokeswoman Kelly Nantel said. “It’s disappointing that the NLRB has now decided that those votes shouldn’t count.” The company has until Dec. 13 to ask the full NLRB to review the decision. The election could move forward while the board considers Amazon's arguments, however. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
The FTC demanded supply chain information from Amazon and other companies
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered the companies to provide a swath of information on supply chain issues within 45 days. The FTC is looking into the “causes behind ongoing supply chain disruptions and how these disruptions are causing serious and ongoing hardships for consumers and harming competition in the U.S. economy,” the commission said.
“In addition to better understanding the reasons behind the disruptions, the study will examine whether supply chain disruptions are leading to specific bottlenecks, shortages, anticompetitive practices, or contributing to rising consumer prices,” according to the commission.
Amazon declined to comment.
Inside the industry
A leaked internal Facebook survey shows employees are losing confidence in leadership and fewer than half intend to stay (Insider)
- Susan Epstein has joined Facebook parent company Meta's civil rights team as associate general counsel for civil rights in technology. Epstein most recently taught at Stanford University and the University of Chicago Law School. She was a policy volunteer on the Biden-Harris transition team's education policy committee, according to her University of Chicago biography.
- The American Enterprise Institute hosts an event on congressional antitrust proposals today at 3:30 p.m.
- The Senate Commerce Committee holds a nomination hearing for Gigi Sohn, President Biden’s pick to be a Federal Communications Commissioner, and Alan Davidson, Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary for communications and information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, on Wednesday at 10:15 a.m.
- The House Energy and Commerce Committee’s communications and technology committee holds a hearing on proposals taking aim at Big Tech’s legal immunity on Wednesday at 10:30 a.m.
- The House Science Committee holds a hearing on microelectronics on Thursday at 10 a.m.
- The American Enterprise Institute hosts an event on the role of economic analysis in antitrust on Friday at 10 a.m.
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