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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The world is closing the gap with Europe on digital rules, E.U. competition chief says

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Thursday! If you were expecting another meandering tech hearing yesterday in the Senate, you likely walked away pleasantly surprised

Below: Researchers found Facebook has a hard time identifying political ads, and senators are proposing new social media transparency legislation. But first:

The world is closing the gap with Europe on digital rules, E.U. competition chief says

Europe may have led the way globally in setting rules around data privacy, but other countries are catching up when it comes to digital competition and content regulations, according to European Union competition chief Margrethe Vestager

The Danish politician, one of the most influential policymakers on tech issues in the world, sat down with technology editors and reporters at Washington Post headquarters Wednesday to discuss the state of digital regulation and her recent meetings with top U.S. officials.

Vestager, who will be instrumental in implementing the E.U.’s landmark proposals to reshape digital competition and content moderation policies, said she sees growing overlap between European and U.S. leaders on those fronts. Those proposals, the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA), are in the process of being finalized. 

Vestager said that while Europe helped to pave the way for privacy laws globally by enacting their own rules, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the global landscape has shifted. 

“When Europe legislated on privacy, I think we were way ahead of the curve, and now sort of everyone is coming on board. … With the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act I think Europe is still ahead of the curve, but only [by] a fraction compared to what we were,” she said.

Here are highlights from our interview, edited for length and clarity:

Officials in the U.S. have expressed concern in the digital tax debate about proposals being too narrowly targeted at U.S. tech companies. Is that a concern you’ve heard from the White House or other officials in the Biden administration about the DMA and DSA?

I think it's fair enough and legitimate to ask if there is a bias. One of the things that makes it obvious that there is not is that we come from casework and we translate in a neutral manner what constitutes a dominant company, what we consider a gatekeeper. We are in a historical point of time, where we have opened a new chapter of digitization, so it's now that we need to make sure that the market is open. We really think that we serve the market well. 

The second thing is, we have said that if there is a business with a specific concern about the obligations, they should come to us directly, instead of taking the tour through government.

But is that a concern you’ve heard directly from the White House or other administration officials?

No. 

(Just before this interview, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo publicly said the U.S. has "serious concerns that these proposals will disproportionately impact U.S.-based tech firms.")

You’ve talked about cooperation under the Biden administration with the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department. What does that look like day-to-day, and how does it differ from under the past administration?

I think it's more intense because there are more cases that we have in common. The day-to-day interaction depends a bit on the companies involved. If we have the [legal] waivers so that we can speak together in detail, we do that. If we don't have the waivers of course, then we cannot go into detail. If we have the waivers, then the teams will speak maybe two times a week.

How was cooperation under the Trump administration?

I think on a team level, it was good. But since we didn't have the same number of cases in common, it was not as intense.

In your view, is it possible for a digital company with gatekeeper power to offer competing products without creating competition concerns or a conflict of interest?

That is indeed a core question: if the behavior we see is a reflection of being a dominant platform or of choices made that we consider illegal. We go with the second option, that there are behaviors that you can refrain from doing so we don't have to investigate you or label it as illegal. So yes, we do think it is possible. I think this is also why we have suggested we could do structural separation if we find that a behavior can only be solved by structural separation. 

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are considering antitrust legislation along those lines. Are you meeting with those lawmakers while in town?

Yes, it’s in my program to meet them. It’s really interesting for us to understand, what is the process from here? Because we see a lot of bipartisan support for the work done by [Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)] and [Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-R.I.)] and others. We know that it's not a done deal, just because there's bipartisan support in a committee. One of the reasons why we find the work done really encouraging is that we see some of the same logic we apply in the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act in the number of proposals that [have been introduced]. It’s not packaged the same way, but you see some of the same ideas.

(Later Wednesday, Cicilline tweeted a photo of their summit.)

Do you have any message for them about what’s at stake here?

I'm not here to tell people what to do, but I see that we take a lot of risk these years if we do not take action. I think most of what’s at stake is the benefit of digitization, the enormous potential that we are at risk of losing, if people do not see that they can trust technology, that technology is on board for developing democracy and not undermining democracy. 

What’s your reaction to recent tech regulation in China?

Sometimes people ask me, “Are you envious of China?” And the answer to that question is no, because we are trying to do something that we in our system consider legitimate. So no, not envious of China, not at all.

Our top tabs

Instagram head got an icy reception on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers tore into Instagram for being too slow to address child safety on its platforms, Cat Zakrzewski, Will Oremus and I report. Instagram head Adam Mosseri called for a new industry body to create standards for age verification and parental controls. He also said that some legal protections afforded to tech companies should be contingent on their compliance with those standards.

But lawmakers openly criticized the idea of such a body. It would be a continuation of the “status quo” and insufficient to address issues on platforms such as Instagram, Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) said. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), meanwhile, pressed Mosseri on whether Instagram would support an independent body. 

“Self policing depends on trust,” he said. “The trust is gone.”

Facebook often can't tell the difference between political and native ads, researchers found

Researchers from Belgian university KU Leuven’s imec-DistriNet and New York University’s Cybersecurity for Democracy said they found more than 100,000 ads that weren’t labeled correctly despite being political. In all, Facebook globally “made the wrong decision for 83 percent of ads that had not been declared as political by their advertisers,” they said.

“Unfortunately, we find that Facebook’s detection of political ads is flawed: Facebook misses more ads than they detect, and over half of those detected ads are incorrectly flagged. This enables advertisers to violate policies for an extended time or even evade bans on political ads.” 

An author of the report is calling for mandatory ad disclosure requirements. “We can’t trust Facebook to do a good enough job identifying or disclosing political ads on its own,” said Laura Edelson, a co-founder of NYU Cybersecurity for Democracy who co-wrote the report. 

Meta spokesman Joe Osborne said that the “vast majority of political ads they studied were disclosed and labeled just as they should be.”

Lawmakers propose draft legislation to open social media companies’ data to researchers

A new draft proposal released today would force major social media platforms to hand over data to researchers through a process run out of the National Science Foundation and Federal Trade Commission. The idea was announced by Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee’s privacy subcommittee; Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee; and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who chairs the Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee.

“This legislation will increase transparency, which will help us hold these companies accountable and understand what information they have on users and what they do with it,” Klobuchar said in a statement. “It is time for action — we cannot stand by while social media platforms continue to put profits over safety. Americans deserve to have the facts.”

The proposal would also narrowly amend the Section 230 legal shield to prevent platforms from claiming immunity in some lawsuits if the FTC finds that they didn’t abide by it. It would also establish a new office at the FTC and authorize the commission to force social media companies to disclose “data, metrics or other information” to researchers, the public or both.

Rant and rave

Three U.S. senators have set up fake Instagram accounts posing as teen girls, with Sen. Marsha Blackburn's staff creating hers on the web version of Instagram. My colleague Will Oremus:

Protocol's Ben Brody:

Gizmodo's Shoshana Wodinsky:

Inside the industry

Epic v. Apple ruling put on hold after appeals court grants a stay (The Verge)

Twitter’s highest-profile users get VIP treatment when trolls strike (Bloomberg)

White House to fund tech to evade censorship and increase privacy (Reuters)

Hill happenings

Crypto executives debut on Capitol Hill, urging light regulation of their booming industry (Tory Newmyer)

Privacy monitor

Google tells specific apps to disclose location gathering or be removed (Motherboard)

Trending

Getting married in the Metaverse (The New York Times)

Wikipedia editors very mad about Jimmy Wales’ NFT of a Wikipedia edit (Motherboard)

Daybook

  • The Senate Commerce Committee’s communications, media and broadband subcommittee holds a hearing on algorithmic harms today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee holds a hearing on legislation targeting Big Tech today at 10:30 a.m.
  • Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger speaks at the Economic Club of Washington D.C. today at noon.
  • The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Charles Koch Institute host the fifth annual Future of Speech Online event from Dec. 14 to Dec. 16.

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