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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

‘Responsible social media’ council looks to bridge divides on tech

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Happy Wednesday! Who had “Meta announces legs” on their headline bingo card this week? Brag away and send tips to: cristiano.lima@washpost.com.

Below: The Biden administration announces a proposal affecting gig workers, and Meta's metaverse pitch for businesses faces some challenges. First:

‘Responsible social media’ council looks to bridge divides on tech

Public officials in Washington for years have sparred along partisan lines over whether social media platforms take down too much or too little hate speech and misinformation. 

A council launching this week aims to sidestep those disputes by proposing reforms that tackle issues of bipartisan concern, including children’s safety and national security.

The newly minted Council for Responsible Social Media, set up by the nonpartisan nonprofit Issue One, features a wide-ranging and influential lineup of former U.S. lawmakers and federal officials, advocates, scholars, industry leaders and whistleblowers. 

They include former Democratic House majority leader Dick Gephardt, former defense secretary and White House chief of staff Leon Panetta, former Jan. 6 House select committee adviser and Republican congressman Denver Riggleman, former Google ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder Tristan Harris and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen

“This is not a think tank. This is an action tank,” Gephardt told The Technology 202. “We want to see results.” 

The group is staking out three initial areas of focus: how social media platforms may adversely affect children’s mental health, how they can be weaponized by foreign adversaries to the detriment of U.S. national security and how they may exacerbate societal divisions. 

“The core goal of the commission is to really show that there are bipartisan paths forward … that involve having companies have to actually talk about what is their role in society,” Haugen said in an interview.

Haugen said the council can move the debate around social media accountability forward by focusing on areas of “common ground,” like concerns around algorithmic amplification, transparency and platform design choices. 

Haugen said proposals the council might explore include giving users, particularly children, the option to “reset algorithms” so they do not keep wandering down the same risky “rabbit holes.”

By focusing on systemic issues, she said, the group might be able to help build support for ideas that sidestep thorny speech debates.

The council has received roughly $250,000 in funding collectively from the Omidyar Network, the Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust and the Wend Collective, according to Issue One spokesperson Cory Combs. Combs said the council has not received direct funding from any tech companies. Some of the members, including Gephardt and Panetta, have ties to firms that have represented industry giants

The Omidyar Network, a philanthropic venture launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, has pushed for greater regulation of the tech giants. The Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust is a foundation that describes itself as a “support organization” for Jewish communities. The Wend Collective is a philanthropic group launched by Walmart magnate James Walton.

The council may also rally around legislation that already has bipartisan support, such as recent Senate bills on kids’ online safety and platform transparency, Haugen said.

One of those proposals, the Kids Online Safety Act, would give parents greater control over their children’s online activity and require that platforms give kids the option to opt out of algorithmic recommendations and other potentially harmful features. The other, the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act, would force companies to turn over data about their services to researchers, or face fresh liability threats if they don’t.

Both proposals have bipartisan support, and the children’s safety bill advanced out of committee in the Senate with broad backing. But neither has a counterpart in the House, and the latter hasn’t been formally introduced, signaling they may both still face a long path to passage. 

The council is also poised to shine a brighter spotlight on how U.S. companies may be playing into the hands of foreign adversaries — scrutiny that has largely focused on TikTok, owned by Beijing-based tech giant ByteDance.

The council includes a slew of national security heavyweights, including former defense secretary Chuck Hagel, former CIA director Porter Goss and former Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency director Chris Krebs.

Haugen said one concept the group may explore is requiring “consistent reporting” by companies about how much they are investing to counter foreign influence operations. 

The group is launching ahead of a summit in Washington on Thursday, where it plans to lay out a “plan of action for the months and years ahead,” according to a release.

Our top tabs

Uber, Lyft, DoorDash shares drop after Biden administration announces gig worker rule

The new proposal would require gig firms to consider workers as employees when they’re “economically dependent” on the company, Rachel Lerman reports. The share prices of Uber, Lyft and DoorDash slid on the news.

Uber said the Labor Department listened to drivers, and argued that drivers prefer the “flexibility” of being independent contractors. Lyft said it would return gig firms to similar rules from the Obama administration, which “did not result in reclassification of drivers.”

The AFL-CIO and Gig Workers Rising praised the proposed rule, but some critics said it didn’t go far enough.

Officials at federal regulators invested in tech stocks

More than 1 in 5 top federal officials disclosed investments in firms that were lobbying their agencies, the Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Ballhaus, Brody Mullins, Chad Day, John West, Joe Palazzolo and James V. Grimaldi report.

“While the government was ramping up scrutiny of big technology companies, more than 1,800 federal officials reported owning or trading” stock in Amazon, Apple, Facebook or Google, they write. “More than five dozen officials at five agencies, including the Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department, reported trading stock in companies shortly before their departments announced enforcement actions, such as charges and settlements, against those companies.”

Some agencies waived rules when the investments caused a conflict. In most cases that the Wall Street Journal identified, ethics officials said employees complied with ethics rules, which have some exceptions allowing officials to hold stock in firms that conflict with their agencies' work.

Meta pitches the metaverse to corporate America with its new VR headset

The company’s new $1,500 virtual-reality headset will be integrated with ubiquitous Microsoft products, but it’s not clear if that’ll be enough to sway firms to Meta over Apple and TikTok parent ByteDance, which offer or are expected to release their own technology, Naomi Nix reports. Meta has significantly invested in chief executive Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of the metaverse as a place where virtual-reality experiences transform people’s lives.

“The biggest impediment to Meta’s plans doesn’t have an easy fix: The technology required to accomplish some of Meta’s biggest ambitions for its VR devices is, by its own admission, still years away,” Naomi writes. “Even if Meta manages to continue elbowing out its headset competitors, there is no guarantee that most people will want to don the headsets and spend their lives in a virtual world.”

Rant and rave

Avatars in the Meta metaverse will soon have legs. Our colleague Naomi Nix:

Editor Dan Skellington:

Reporter Alex Barinka:

Inside the industry

Young people using TikTok is no problem, GCHQ chief says (The Guardian)

Battle between Meta and news outlet deepens India's trust deficit (TechCrunch)

Privacy monitor

Tour Amazon’s dream home, where every appliance is also a spy (Geoffrey A. Fowler)

Workforce report

Amazon workers at California warehouse seek to join upstart union (Bloomberg News)

Agency scanner

EU regulators group against big tech paying for telco infrastructure (Reuters)

Trending

Elon Musk desperately tried to make Nathan Fielder laugh at parties (UPROXX)

Daybook

  • Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) and Indiana Gov. Eric J. Holcomb (R) discuss the Chips and Science Act at a Washington Post Live event Thursday at 1:30 p.m.
  • The Atlantic Council hosts an event on a new transatlantic data privacy framework Monday at 10 a.m.

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