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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

DHS tries to right controversial rollout of its ‘disinformation governance board’

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

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Below: Another Amazon union vote tally kicks off, and a report sheds light on where Elon Musk stands on bringing Donald Trump back to Twitter. First:

DHS tries to right controversial rollout of its ‘Disinformation Governance Board’

According to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, there’s a lot of misinformation out there about the department’s newly launched “Disinformation Governance Board.”

Since DHS announced the ominously named initiative last week, it has offered few details about the scope of its work and powers. 

Amid that informational void, Republicans and some civil society groups have bashed the effort as a potential vehicle for government censorship and a threat to free speech. 

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) likened the group to the fictional “Ministry of Truth” propaganda agency from George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

During a pair of television interviews on Sunday, Mayorkas cast those concerns as misplaced but said DHS should have defined the board’s role more clearly.

“Those criticisms are precisely the opposite of what this small working group within the Department of Homeland Security will do,” Mayorkas told CNN. “I think we probably could have done a better job of communicating what it does and does not do.”

Mayorkas said that part of the group’s mandate is “to ensure that the way in which we address threats … [occurs without] infringing on free speech, protecting civil rights and civil liberties, the right of privacy.”

The agency initially said the board would focus on countering disinformation coming from Russia ahead of the midterm elections and from human smugglers targeting migrants on the U.S.-Mexico border. But it said relatively little about what exact function it would serve, and its critics on the right seized on the board’s broad-sounding name to suggest something more nefarious was afoot.

Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation:

But beyond its ill-fated name, there’s no indication that the board will do what its critics have insinuated: surveil or censor Americans. 

On Sunday, Mayorkas repeatedly called the board a “small working group” without “any operational authority or capability” and said it would be focused on foreign threats to homeland security, not domestic ones.

“What it will do is gather together best practices in addressing the threat of disinformation from foreign state adversaries, from the cartels, and disseminate those best practices to the operators that have been executing in addressing this threat for years,” he said.

Asked whether the board would monitor American citizens, Mayorkas replied, “No. … We at the Department of Homeland Security don’t monitor American citizens.”

Mayorkas also nodded to the fact that DHS’s efforts to counter foreign disinformation predate the Biden administration. 

Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the top Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, alluded to that past work in his own statement voicing concern about the board.

Some viewers still found Mayorkas’s explanations lacking, however. 

Naval Academy law professor Jeff Kosseff

Another stumbling block for DHS: Republicans have accused the board’s executive director, Nina Jankowicz, of being unqualified and biased.

They have cited her past remarks praising efforts to crack down on coronavirus misinformation and expressing skepticism about Hunter Biden allegations.

Asked about the criticisms on Sunday, Mayorkas offered a defense of Jancowicz, calling her “eminently qualified” and “a renowned expert in the field of disinformation.”

While critics have zeroed in on Jancowicz’s past statements about U.S. politics, her background has focused heavily on international affairs, lending credence to DHS’s claims the board’s work will not be domestically focused.

Jankowicz previously served as a global fellow at the Wilson Center international think tank and as an adviser to the Ukrainian government as a Fulbright public policy fellow. According to her Wilson Center biography, her studies focus on “the intersection of democracy and technology in Central and Eastern Europe,” and she’s authored a book on Russian disinformation. (We interviewed Jankowicz about Russian disinformation around the war in Ukraine in February.)

That’s unlikely to abate Republican critics, however, who are set to grill Mayorkas about the board’s work at an upcoming DHS oversight hearing in the Senate this week.

Our top tabs

Push to unionize Amazon faces its next big test

“Another group of Amazon warehouse workers on Staten Island will find out soon whether they will become only the second of the company’s U.S. warehouses to vote to join a union,” my colleagues Rachel Lerman and Greg Jaffe report. 

The vote, set to be tallied Monday, marks a major test for efforts to unionize workers at the e-commerce giant who notched their first win in a separate campaign last month. 

“The [Amazon Labor Union] is in a strong position because if they win, they’ve harnessed the momentum and they’ve shown that this is really building to something,” said Rebecca Givan, an associate professor of labor studies at Rutgers University. “And if they lose, they’ve just shone a light on the brutality of the union busting.”

Musk dismayed over Trump's Twitter ban

Tech mogul Elon Musk, who recently agreed to buy Twitter for $44 billion, “remains dismayed that former president Donald Trump is still barred from the platform,” the Wall Street Journal's Rob Copeland, Georgia Wells, Rebecca Elliott and Liz Hoffman reported Friday.

According to the report, Twitter's decision to permanently boot Trump off the platform for inciting rhetoric after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol “riled” Musk. His close associate said Musk “vehemently disagrees with censoring. Especially for a sitting president.”

Since Musk announced his bid to take over Twitter, Republicans have clamored for the mercurial billionaire to restore the former president's access to the platform, even though Trump has said he will never return. Over the weekend, Trump posted on his Truth social app for the first time since its launch, according to Reuters.

FTC chair pledges to address slumping morale

The Federal Trade Commission, one of the primary agencies responsible for overseeing the technology sector, has seen morale plummet since Chair Lina Khan took over, according a staff survey detailed in a report by the Information's Josh Sisco

The agency had “consistently ranked in the top five for staff satisfaction among medium-size government agencies. … But that changed in 2021, the year Lina Khan … took the helm with plans to overhaul how the antitrust agency operates,” according to the report. 

The “overall trends are not where we want them to be,” Khan said in a Thursday email to staff, reviewed by the Information. Khan vowed to “understand the root causes of these results” and “strengthen communication and relationships more broadly within the agency.”

Inside the industry

Musk sells Tesla shares worth $8.5 billion ahead of Twitter takeover (Reuters)

Musk’s Ties to China Could Create Headaches for Twitter (New York Times)

Agency scanner

Activision Blizzard again accused of threatening employees for speaking out (The Verge)

Workforce report

Tech’s NDA wall is crumbling. Salesforce is next.

Amazon ends COVID paid leave for U.S. workers (Reuters)

Uber and Lyft extend legal fee coverage to drivers sued under Oklahoma’s forthcoming abortion law (The Verge)

Trending

How a billionaires boys’ club came to dominate the public square (Michael Scherer and Sarah Ellison)

Why Elon Musk is so polarizing (Will Oremus)

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