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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The FCC and FTC are still hobbled by vacancies. It’s not the first time.

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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T.G.I.F Technology 202 familia! A quick programming note: We’ll be off Monday for Presidents’ Day, but back Tuesday. How are you celebrating George Washington’s birthday bash? Let us know: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: Apple workers may unionize, and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s lawyers filed new SEC complaints.

The FCC and FTC are still hobbled by vacancies. It’s not the first time.

For almost the entirety of President Biden's term so far, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have operated without a Democratic majority. 

That has meant that the two agencies, which together regulate the technology and telecommunications industries, have been unable to fully execute major agenda items like restoring net neutrality protections or cracking down on privacy abuses in Silicon Valley. 

The delays have vexed lawmakers and advocates on the left, who are clamoring for the FTC and FCC to take a more aggressive role in regulating the sectors. 

Tom Wheeler, who chaired the FCC under former president Barack Obama, said the lack of majorities has left the two agencies largely “frozen.”

“It comes down to a counting of the votes, and if you don’t have the votes, you can’t move ahead on some of the agenda items that are necessary,” he told me Thursday.

But the frustrations belie an uncomfortable truth. The agencies frequently operate at limited capacity, especially when Congress and the White House are preoccupied with bigger national emergencies. 

It took President Barack Obama 14 months to lock up a full majority at the FTC, and 15 for President Donald Trump, though both managed to get their parties in control at the FCC within their first year

President Bill Clinton secured a majority on the five-member FCC in his first year, but it wasn’t until nearly 18 months into his term that the agency had a full complement of commissioners. Former president George W. Bush was somewhat of an outlier, securing majorities at both the FTC and FCC within a few months of taking office.

Biden’s FCC and FTC nominations could still drag past those milestones, though. 

The Senate Commerce Committee had scheduled votes for FCC nominee Gigi Sohn and FTC nominee Alvaro Bedoya for earlier this month, but Democrats had to scrap the plans after Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke in late January. 

With the Senate evenly split between the two parties, and Republicans staunchly opposing both Sohn and Bedoya, Democrats need every vote to get the nominees confirmed. 

Luján announced Sunday that he’s “doing well” and plans to return to the Senate “in just a few short weeks.” The remarks mean Sohn's and Bedoya’s nominations will continue to languish in committee likely until at least March. And even if they advance out of committee, Senate Democrats will need to allocate precious floor time to get them sworn in. 

“For these regulatory agencies, it is not like Cabinet offices or Supreme Court nominations or something like this where … the Senate is able to drop everything and move on it,” Wheeler said. “These things fit themselves in around the edges.” 

Biden’s FTC and FCC nominees have already faced a slew of major hurdles. 

For much of Biden’s first year, Congress and the White House were consumed by efforts to respond to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout. 

“The Biden administration came into office with five existential issues that they had to deal with … and that sucked their focus and energy for the early days, and sucked the focus and energy of the Congress, as well,” Wheeler said. 

Jeff Hauser, founder and director of the Revolving Door Project, an advocacy group that tracks nominations, said the Senate’s parliamentary rules haven't helped Democrats, instead giving Republicans new ways to slow down nominations they oppose.

“The overall process is just not working, and it's not working much more broadly than just these two nominees,” he said, adding that the FTC and FCC are “still relatively high priority among independent agencies.”

Ultimately, though, confirming polarizing nominees in an evenly split Senate was never going to be easy — or quick.

Our top tabs

Apple workers are preparing to unionize

At least a dozen Apple retail stores could be weeks away from filing paperwork to form unions, Reed Albergotti reports. Workers say their wages haven’t kept up with inflation and that they’re encouraged by successful efforts to unionize Starbucks locations.

“Before officially filing, most of the stores have been informally gauging interest among the staff, hoping that more than half of the employees will vote to unionize, the threshold needed to gain official legal standing with the National Labor Relations Board,” Reed writes. “To avoid detection by managers at the stores, employees have been meeting in secret and communicating with encrypted messaging, sometimes using Android phones, the competitor to Apple’s iOS operating system, to avoid any possible snooping by Apple.”

Frances Haugen’s lawyers filed two new SEC complaints

The Facebook whistleblower’s lawyers argued that the company misled investors about its efforts to combat climate change and covid-19 misinformation, Cat Zakrzewski reports. One complaint says the company didn’t have a clear climate change misinformation policy despite Facebook executives telling investors about their commitment to fighting the global crisis. The other says when Facebook executives touted their efforts to remove covid-19 misinformation, internal documents “paint a different story.” 

“A congressional staffer shared redacted versions of the SEC complaints with a consortium of news organizations, including The Washington Post,” Cat writes. “The complaints cite confidential documents, originally collected by Haugen, also shared with the consortium.” The SEC did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the status of the complaints. Drew Pusateri, a spokesman for Facebook's parent, Meta, said the company continues to remove false claims about vaccines and has worked to elevate “authoritative information” about climate change and public health. “There are no one-size-fits-all solutions to stopping the spread of misinformation, but we’re committed to building new tools and policies to combat it,” he said in a statement.

Tesla faces government safety probe over ‘phantom braking’

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration received a surge in reports about the sudden braking glitch affecting Tesla vehicles after a Washington Post report on the subject, Faiz Siddiqui and Jeremy B. Merrill report. The overall rise in complaints about the braking “has followed Tesla’s shift from a multi-sensor perception system combining cameras and radar to a camera-based system,” they write.

Tesla, which has disbanded its public relations department, did not respond to a request for comment. “NHTSA will determine the scope and severity of the potential problem and fully assess the potential safety-related issues,” NHTSA spokeswoman Lucia Sanchez said.

Rant and rave

The deal podcaster Joe Rogan signed with Spotify is worth more than $200 million, the New York Times reported. The Undefeated's David Dennis Jr.:

Writer Ian Morris:

Starlee Kine, whose podcast “Mystery Show” was canceled by Gimlet, a podcasting company now owned by Spotify:

Inside the industry

Intel would be interested in participating in consortium to invest in Arm — Intel CEO (Reuters)

U.S. adds WeChat, AliExpress to notorious piracy market list (Bloomberg)

Trump app opens to hundreds of testers ahead of expected launch (Reuters)

Amazon and Visa agree to end global dispute over credit card fees (CNBC)

The startup Fast is a hit in Silicon Valley. But its CEO raises eyebrows in Australia (NPR)

Agency scanner

Tesla tells federal judge that SEC is harassing Elon Musk and the company (Wall Street Journal)

Privacy monitor

Meta’s RSC supercomputer brings revolutionary power — and privacy and bias concerns (VentureBeat)

Hill happenings

Lujan says he'll return to Senate soon, bolstering Democrats (Bloomberg)

Two U.S. Big Tech antitrust bills backed by publisher trade group (Reuters)

Trending

Redditors compete to create impossibly short ethernet cables (Motherboard)

Daybook

  • International antitrust enforcers and FTC Commissioners Noah Phillips and Christine Wilson speak at the George Mason Law Review's 25th annual antitrust symposium, which takes place from Monday to Friday.
  • The showrunners and executive producers of “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” speak at a Washington Post Live event on Tuesday at 3 p.m.
  • New America’s Open Technology Institute hosts an event on digital equity and spectrum auctions on Wednesday at noon. 
  • Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser (D) speaks at the Berkeley Center for Law & Technology’s Privacy Law Forum at 2:20 p.m. on Thursday.

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