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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

The real reason Will Smith’s Oscars outburst was censored on U.S. broadcasts

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Tuesday! Today's top was reported with an assist from our ace business of entertainment reporter Steven Zeitchik.

Below: President Biden eyes a big funding boost for his antitrust cops, and how Ukraine’s Internet is withstanding the war. First:

The real reason Will Smith’s Oscars outburst was censored on U.S. broadcasts

After movie star Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock onstage during the Oscars late Sunday, people rushed to social media to see their confrontation in full.

That’s because immediately after the slap aired on U.S. broadcasts, sound was briefly cut off as Smith and Rock continued to trade words — marking one of the most high-profile instances of a broadcast being censored in recent U.S. history. 

The decision to censor the altercation highlights the fiercely contested U.S. standards around indecent and profane material, which constantly loom over broadcasters when they decide whether to carry controversial segments, like this. 

Social media users on Sunday quickly surfaced uncensored footage of the broadcast that appeared to run in full in other countries, including Australia and Japan, but not in the United States.

The clips show that after Smith slapped Rock for making a joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith, Rock quipped, “Wow. Will Smith just smacked the s--- out of me.” After Smith sat back down in the audience, he shouted repeatedly at Rock, “Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth.”

If U.S. broadcasters had carried the profanity-laced exchange, they could have run afoul of federal rules prohibiting “obscene, indecent and profane content from being broadcast on the radio or TV,” media law experts told The Technology 202. 

Regulators ban the broadcasting of “obscene” material, which is treated more severely, 24 hours a day. But they only restrict broadcasters from airing “indecent” or “profane” material between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m., “when there is a reasonable risk that children may be in the audience,” according to the Federal Communications Commission

While the exchange ran after 10 p.m. on the East Coast, it ran before the cutoff on the West Coast, which could have opened broadcasters up to liability.

The definitions of those terms have been subject to intense debate for decades and has spawned legal battles that have risen all the way up to the Supreme Court. 

While the FCC has rarely punished broadcasters for violating the rules in recent years, American University law professor Victoria Phillips said the mere threat of a fine in the hundreds of thousands has led companies to police themselves, with the guidelines serving as “a constant bee in their bonnet.”

The FCC did not return a request for comment on whether it has received consumer complaints about the segment, or whether it is reviewing the matter.

An email request to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which produces the Oscars, was not returned. ABC, the Academy's long-term U.S. broadcasting partner, which has a strong say in production, declined to comment. 

ABC creates a raw feed of the event which it sends globally for rights-holders around the world to air in accordance with their own precepts. The network then employs its own standards and practices department to bleep or cut away from moments it finds problematic in the United States, relying on a brief delay to do so, my colleague Steven Zeitchik reports for The Technology 202.  

If run in full, the altercation may have tested a controversial FCC policy against what are known as “fleeting expletives” — vulgar words flung in an unscripted manner, including at live events like the Oscars. 

In 2012, the Supreme Court ruled against the FCC’s “fleeting expletives” policy because it said the agency did not give broadcasters adequate notice of its rule change. But the court notably did not rule on the constitutionality of the policy itself, creating a legal gray area for regulators and broadcasters.

“Broadcasters deal with some ambiguity about whether fleeting expletives, like what Will Smith said, would result in a fine or not,” Duke University professor Philip Napoli said.

But Napoli argued that other factors play a strong role in these decisions, including concerns that airing such material could upset advertisers and consumers.

Phillips said the decision by U.S. broadcasters to censor expletives that ran in some other countries — right after airing the physical altercation between Smith and Rock in full — also speaks to Americans’ sensibilities about profanity and violence. 

“Indecency guidelines have all been about sort of sexual, titillating provocative stuff, yet we see so much violence” on broadcast TV and radio, said Phillips, who previously served as an adviser at the FCC.

According to the FCC, profane content is considered “ ‘grossly offensive’ language that is considered a public nuisance,” while indecent content “portrays sexual or excretory organs or activities in a way that is patently offensive” but stops short of legal standards on obscenity. 

Tim Winter, president of the Parents Television Media Council, applauded ABC for “doing a superb job at ensuring audiences did not hear profanity in the U.S. broadcast,” but called it “disappointing” that viewers, including younger ones, saw the physical altercation.

U.S. rules on indecent material only apply to things broadcast on TV or radio airwaves — not cable, streaming or social media. That means that while ABC could theoretically face fines for carrying such material, HBO, Netflix or YouTube could not. 

“This notion of indecency is literally a category of speech, that from a legal standpoint, only really exists within the realm of broadcasting,” Napoli said.

Our top tabs

Biden calls for ‘historic’ boost to antitrust funding in annual budget

President Biden’s $5.8 trillion budget plan unveiled Monday called for major funding boosts for antitrust enforcers at the Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department, which together police competition in the technology sector.

The White House touted what it called “historic increases” of $88 million for the Justice Department’s antitrust division and of $139 million for the FTC in their budget proposal, which serves as an annual starting point for negotiations on Capitol Hill. Leaders at the FTC in particular have long said they do not have adequate funding to fulfill their oversight mandates. In a televised interview in January, FTC Chair Lina Khan called the agency “severely under-resourced.”

Biden’s budget also calls for increases for agencies that play a key role in helping to foster research and development of emerging technologies. That includes a $187 million increase for research initiatives at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) that focuses on “artificial intelligence, quantum science, and advanced biotechnologies,” and a $172 million increase for federal programs aimed at increasing participation from underrepresented communities in science and engineering. 

How Ukraine’s Internet is surviving Russia’s war

Weeks into Russia’s invasion, Ukraine’s Internet is largely intact, even in the face of attacks by a major military power with vaunted cyber capabilities, my colleagues Gerrit De Vynck, Rachel Lerman and Cat Zakrzewski report.

“Russia has launched cyberattacks, including hacking into a satellite Internet provider’s network at the beginning of the invasion, and potentially knocking out service at Ukrtelecom, a telephone and Internet provider, on Tuesday. But the attacks have been smaller and less destructive than many experts had expected,” according to the report.

“The fact that Internet networking and cellular largely works is remarkable,” said Lukasz Olejnik, an independent cybersecurity researcher and consultant.

Security experts say Europe’s antitrust overhaul could undermine encryption

Prominent security experts including former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos say that the proposed Digital Markets Act could make it harder for large companies to offer encryption by requiring that they make their services interoperable with smaller competitors, the Verge’s Corin Faife reports.

Faife writes that for messaging apps, the interoperability requirements “would mean letting end-to-end encrypted services like WhatsApp mingle with less secure protocols like SMS — which security experts worry will undermine hard-won gains in the field of message encryption.” 

The debate mirrors one unfolding on Capitol Hill over a separate proposal, known as the ACCESS Act, that also aims to make it easier for users to transfer their data from large platforms to smaller competitors. Critics have said the bill, which advanced out of the House Judiciary Committee last year, poses privacy concerns.

Hill happenings

Democrats Seek to Break Stalemate on Biden Nominees for FTC and FCC (Wall Street Journal)

Antitrust Bill Targeting Amazon, Google, Apple Gets Support From DOJ (Wall Street Journal)

Inside the industry

Huawei 'more united' in face of U.S. pressure, says repatriated CFO (Reuters)

Rumble, the Right’s Go-To Video Site, Has Much Bigger Ambitions (New York Times)

Ukrainian telecom company's internet service disrupted by 'powerful' cyberattack (Reuters)

Competition watch

Apple’s $55 million fine over in-app payments for Dutch dating apps could start growing faster (The Verge)

EU's Vestager says no antitrust concerns yet about cloud computing (Reuters)

Trending

Secret World of Pro-Russia Hacking Group Exposed in Leak (Wall Street Journal)

Google Ordered Russian Translators Not to Call War in Ukraine a War (The Intercept)

Mentions

  • Fifty-six organizations including IBM, Microsoft and the MIT on Tuesday are launching a group called the American Semiconductor Innovation Coalition (ASIC), which will advocate for greater federal funding for semiconductor chips. Many of the organizations previously laid out a road map for how the Commerce Department could create a new federal hub for semiconductor research.

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