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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Biden’s Commerce chief is under fire from Warren, progressives for defending U.S. tech giants

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Happy Wednesday! Below: Tesla faces new harassment lawsuits and U.K. regulators sound off on smartphone competition. First up:

Biden’s Commerce chief is under fire from Warren, progressives for defending U.S. tech giants

When Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo voiced concerns last week that proposals under consideration in the European Union might disproportionately impact U.S. digital behemoths like Google and Apple, she drew praise from groups backed by the tech industry. It marked a rare moment of unity with an administration that has leaned into reining in Big Tech companies.

But one top progressive lawmaker and a slew of advocates are pushing back on the remarks, which they say stand in conflict with President Biden’s aggressive approach to competition policy, including tapping prominent Big Tech critics as key enforcers.

The schism highlights ongoing tensions within the Democratic Party over how to curb what many of its leaders see as competitive abuses by tech giants that are largely from the United States, including whether to embrace efforts by policymakers overseas to crack down on their practices. And it’s raising questions about a potential disconnect between Commerce and the White House.

In a letter shared exclusively with The Technology 202, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) told Raimondo on Tuesday that her remarks “appear to publicly undermine the Administration’s previously announced policies to protect consumers and workers from Big Tech monopolies.”

The senator, who pledged to break up tech giants like Amazon and Facebook during her unsuccessful 2020 presidential campaign, is calling on Raimondo to explain how her remarks are “not in conflict” with Biden’s July executive order on competition. (Jeff Bezos, who founded Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)

The order took aim at a broad range of big businesses and their practices, including technology, health-care, agricultural and manufacturing firms, but also singled out “the rise of the dominant Internet platforms” and said it is the administration’s policy for enforcers to keep them in check. 

Warren wrote that the federal government has too often “carried water for big multinationals when it comes to our trade policy,” and urged Raimondo not to contribute to that trend, and that Big Tech companies “should not be able to rely on you to run interference for them.”

Commerce spokeswoman Robyn Patterson said the department received Warren's letter and plans to respond. “Secretary Raimondo has repeatedly said she supports the goals of the Digital Markets Act and has been clear in her support of the administration’s strong pro-competition policies,” Patterson added.

Warren isn’t alone in wanting more clarity from Raimondo on how her views align, or not, with the White House. On Wednesday, a group of more than 20 progressive, anti-monopoly and consumer groups including Demand Progress and the American Economic Liberties Project urged the secretary in a separate missive to “reconsider” her stance on the matter. 

“We urge you to join the Biden administration’s whole-of-government commitment to eliminating abusive monopolies in every industry,” the groups wrote.

The White House has challenged the notion that Raimondo’s stance was in conflict with Biden’s policy on competition and tech, with a spokesperson saying the secretary was referring to the “standard practice” of representing U.S. interests to foreign governments, as Axios first reported.

“We would all agree that is not in contradiction with our strong pro-competition approach and the actions we will continue to take,” White House spokesman Chris Meagher said. The White House on Tuesday directed a request for comment on Warren’s letter to Commerce.

Speaking at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce event last week, Raimondo expressed “serious concerns” that the E.U.’s landmark Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA) would “disproportionately impact U.S.-based tech firms” and their ability to serve users.

Raimondo also urged policymakers in the E.U. to “continue listening to our concerns by stakeholders before finalizing their legislation,” a likely nod to the tech industry and its allies. The proposals would create new rules for how dominant tech companies operate their platforms and police harmful content on their products. 

Raimondo’s remarks echoed reservations long voiced by industry-backed groups including the Chamber of Progress, which describes itself as a left-of-center tech coalition and counts Amazon, Google, Twitter and other digital firms as financial supporters. 

Adam Kovacevich, a former Google executive who founded the group, pushed back on Warren’s claim that Raimondo’s position is not in line with the broader administration.

“I think you can want more scrutiny of Big Tech and more competition without wanting Europeans to discriminate against American tech workers, and so I think that those two things are not in tension at all,” Kovacevich said during an interview Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the Chamber of Progress and three tech trade groups sent a letter directly to Biden thanking him for his administration’s “strong defense of U.S. workers” in response to the E.U.’s proposals, the DMA and DSA.

In an interview at The Washington Post last Wednesday, E.U. competition chief Margrethe Vestager told me that while it’s “fair enough” to question whether European policymakers are showing bias in crafting rules for U.S. tech giants, their proposals make it clear that’s not the case by outlining in a “neutral manner” what companies would be covered under them.

There are shades of gray in the argument, too. Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) told The Technology 202 that while he agrees with Warren that “Big Tech monopolies must be held accountable and regulated,” he “would prefer for the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice to do the regulating, rather than bureaucrats in Brussels.”

The same debate at hand — whether new competition rules should more narrowly target the conduct of dominant tech platforms, the largest and most powerful of which are U.S.-based — is also unfolding at the domestic level in the halls of Congress.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is making a historic push to pass laws to revamp the nation’s antitrust laws to rein in the conduct of the tech giants. But some Democrats and a slew of Republicans, particularly in the House, have voiced concerns that align with Raimondo’s

Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), who is leading the campaign in the House, called it “imperative that our efforts in Congress are aligned with efforts around the world,” including Europe.

The extent to which policymakers around the globe are able to resolve those issues will undoubtedly play a massive role in how digital rules on competition shake out, a monumental clash of powers that’s set to reach a historic crescendo in 2022. 

Our top tabs

Six women sued Tesla, accusing it of fostering a culture of sexual harassment at a California plant and other facilities

In six separate lawsuits, the women say their male co-workers often referenced their bodies and clothing, Faiz Siddiqui reports. The women described some common experiences in interviews with The Washington Post and in legal filings:

  • Several women say they complained, but the behavior didn’t change.
  • Other women said that they feared talking to human resources because their superiors participated in the harassment.
  • Some women alleged they procured baggy clothes in an attempt to fend off their co-workers.
  • Some of the women say their experiences led to depression and anxiety, preventing them from advancing in their careers.

Eden Mederos, who worked at Tesla service centers, drew a line between her experiences and the behavior of Tesla CEO Elon Musk. “He would make 69 or 420 jokes … which caused the technicians to be even worse,” Mederos said.

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. But Musk responded to criticism by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who called on him to pay more in taxes. Musk insulted Warren, saying he “will pay more taxes than any American in history this year.” Musk, the world’s richest person, sold about $5 billion in Tesla stock in November.

A key committee advanced Europe’s proposed Internet rules

The committee approved a ban on deceptive techniques designed to get users to do things they don’t want to do and restrictions on ads that target children, the Associated Press’s Kelvin Chan reports

The rules, which have been the subject of fierce lobbying from the tech industry, look set for approval from lawmakers, though they still face tough negotiations next year with EU bodies,” Chan writes. “The regulations, and similar ones in the United Kingdom to curb harmful online content, show Europe’s role as a pacesetter for regulating the tech industry as a global movement picks up pace following whistleblower Frances Haugen’s allegations that Facebook put profits ahead of safety.”

European lawmakers plan to vote today on the DMA, another set of rules targeting “digital gatekeepers.”

Apple and Google have a “viselike grip” on how people use smartphones, U.K. antitrust regulator says

The U.K. Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) is looking into whether to try to take aim at their control over smartphone ecosystems, the Wall Street Journal’s Sam Schechner and Stu Woo report. The nonbinding report issued by the regulator could set the stage for future action and legislation targeting Big Tech.

“On Tuesday, the head of the CMA said its 445-page report found that Apple and Google determine which software is available on their app stores and make it difficult for people to switch to alternate web browsers on their phones,” Schechner and Woo report. “He said that control limits innovation and choice, and leads to higher prices.”

The companies defended their practices. Apple faces “intense competition in every segment in which we operate” and will continue to work with the CMA on the study, a spokeswoman told the Journal. Google is “committed to building thriving, open platforms that empower consumers and help developers succeed,” a spokeswoman told the outlet. The CMA plans to release a final report on the issue in June.

Rant and rave

SpaceX didn't respond to a request for comment from the Verge's Loren Grush about allegations of sexual harassment at the company, but Grush reported on a companywide email. The New York Times's Ryan Mac and Bloomberg's Dana Hull:

Tesla didn't respond to a request for comment on an article about allegations of sexual harassment at the company, which is also run by Elon Musk. But Musk was active on Twitter, my colleague Will Oremus noted:

Agency scanner

Big Tech is still fighting to curb California’s privacy law (Protocol)

Hill happenings

Jan. 6 rally organizers sue Verizon to block release of cell phone data to congressional committee (Politico)

Inside the industry

Silicon Valley’s voice in Washington to dissolve (Politico)

The Army is in hot water over TikTok recruiting activity (The Verge)

Oversight Board raises alarm over Facebook’s role in Ethiopian conflict (The Verge)

Apple’s nightmare before Christmas: supply chain crisis delays gift deliveries (Financial Times)

Workforce report

Apple renews mask mandates in U.S. stores as covid-19 surges (The Wall Street Journal)

Trending

How Beijing influences the influencers (The New York Times)

Mentions

  • Amie Stepanovich has joined the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) as vice president of U.S. policy; she previously was executive director of Silicon Flatirons. Simon McDougall, FPF’s new senior fellow, previously worked at the U.K. Information Commissioner’s Office. Keir Lamont, who is joining FPF as senior counsel on its legislation team, previously worked at the Computer and Communication Industry Association. Tatiana Rice, FPF’s new policy counsel, previously worked at Shook, Hardy & Bacon LLP.
  • Maurice Turner has joined Facebook parent Meta as public policy manager. Last year, Turner worked as a senior adviser at the U.S. Election Assistance Commission.
  • Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo is meeting with executives from Airbnb, Block, eBay and Etsy at a business roundtable today.
  • Onfido, VMware and Wejo have joined TechNet as members.

Daybook

  • The Center for Democracy and Technology and the Charles Koch Institute host the fifth annual Future of Speech Online event today and Thursday.
  • Vice President of the European Commission for Values and Transparency Věra Jourová discusses transatlantic digital cooperation at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event today at 9:30 a.m.
  • Former FCC Chair Ajit Pai speaks at a Georgetown University Center for Business & Public Policy event today at noon.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee’s antitrust committee holds a hearing on the impact of monopolization and consolidation on U.S. innovation today at 2:30 p.m.
  • Rep. Haley Stevens (D-Mich.), who chairs the House Science Committee’s Research & Technology Subcommittee, discusses the future of U.S. technological and scientific competitiveness at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event on Thursday at 2 p.m.

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