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The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Biden’s plea for Congress to ‘unite’ against Big Tech, explained

The Technology 202

A newsletter briefing on the intersection of technology and politics.

Welcome to The Technology 202. I’d like to start by sending my condolences to the family and friends of Blake Hounshell, the inquisitive and insightful late New York Times editor and Politico alum who years ago helped this reporter find his footing in political journalism and newsletter writing. Thank you, Blake. You’ll be missed. Read about his legacy here.

Below: A House committee asks former Twitter executives to testify at a hearing, and Apple plans to disclose more information about requests to remove apps. First:

Biden’s plea for Congress to ‘unite’ against Big Tech, explained

President Biden issued a rare call to action on Wednesday for Congress to “unite” on legislation to “hold Big Tech accountable,” offering his most detailed road map to date for what legislation he believes lawmakers should advance to rein in Silicon Valley giants. 

“It’s time to walk the walk and get something done,” Biden wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, outlining several areas for potential bipartisan action. 

Here’s a breakdown of his proposals and where those legislative efforts stand:

Privacy protections for all consumers, especially children

What Biden called for: Congress should set “clear limits on how companies can collect, use and share highly personal data” with “even stronger” protections for “young people,” including by limiting targeted advertising for all consumers and banning it for children.

What’s on the table: House lawmakers last year advanced a bipartisan measure that would largely bar companies from collecting data that’s not necessary to provide specific services, give users a right to opt out of targeted advertising and ban such ads for minors. Senate Democratic leaders have introduced legislation that would similarly minimize how much data companies collect and advanced a separate bipartisan bill to ban targeted ads to kids. 

The status: Leaders in both chambers would like to pass both broader privacy guardrails and tougher standards for children, but they can’t agree on what to prioritize. House leaders say their legislation accomplishes both, while Senate Democratic leaders say that it’s not strong enough, and that disagreements over a broader bill shouldn’t delay updating children’s privacy laws. 

Revamping tech’s liability shield

What Biden called for: The tech giants need to “take responsibility for the content they spread and the algorithms they use,” and so Congress should “fundamentally reform Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act,” the law that shields digital services from lawsuits for hosting and moderating user content. 

What’s on the table: Lawmakers have introduced dozens of bills seeking to pare back Section 230 protections. Both House Democratic leaders and Senate Republicans have introduced bills seeking to revoke the protections when platforms algorithmically amplify content, but the former targets instances when it leads to harm while the latter seeks to address allegations of “censorship.” Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle proposed narrower bills dealing with specific types of content, including illegal drugs, counterfeits and child abuse material. 

The status: While there’s widespread concern on Capitol Hill that Section 230 has shielded tech companies, particularly large online platforms, from accountability, consensus on a path forward is more limited. Democrats and Republicans have banded together on proposals targeting certain content, particularly around harms to children, but neither of the committees with primary jurisdiction have advanced any bills in recent years. Partisan disagreements over whether platforms moderate too much or too little political content have also bogged down talks. 

Algorithmic transparency

What Biden called for: “We also need far more transparency about the algorithms Big Tech is using to stop them from discriminating, keeping opportunities away from equally qualified women and minorities, or pushing content to children that threatens their mental health and safety.”  

What’s on the table: The data privacy bill advanced by House lawmakers includes provisions requiring companies to vet whether their algorithms could cause harm or lead to discrimination, and to disclose those assessments to regulators. Senate lawmakers are separately pushing for legislation that could force companies to cough up more data about their algorithms to external researchers and regulators, a concept endorsed by former president Barack Obama. A children’s online safety bill would also allow for more research into how algorithms impact kids.

The status: There’s bipartisan agreement on the need for greater transparency around how companies deploy their algorithms, but congressional leaders to date have shown little appetite for passing stand-alone bills on those issues. Their fate may rest on how successful proponents are in either tucking their proposals into must-pass legislation, like the annual spending bills, or in reaching agreement on a broader tech package.

Boosting competition online

What Biden called for: While he did not explicitly cite any proposals, Biden took aim at when large tech companies “find ways to promote their own products while excluding or disadvantaging competitors — or charge competitors a fortune to sell on their platform.”

What’s on the table: A bipartisan group of lawmakers advanced proposals last Congress to bar companies from boosting their products over those of their competitors, a practice known as self-preferencing, as well as legislation to limit app store restrictions on developers. 

The status: While lawmakers succeeded in passing legislation to boost funding for federal antitrust enforcers, none of their big-ticket tech proposals setting limits on self-preferencing practices got a vote in either chamber. House Republican leaders, particularly Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), have sharply criticized the bills, and some of its proponents have cast doubt on their prospects this Congress. 

Our top tabs

House Oversight Committee asks former Twitter executives to testify at February hearing

Rep. James Comer (R-Ky.), chairman of the House Oversight Committee, asked three former Twitter executives to testify at the hearing about the social media company’s decision to restrict sharing of an article about President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, during the 2020 election campaign. The requests were addressed to former chief legal counsel Vijaya Gadde, former deputy general counsel James Baker and former trust and safety chief Yoel Roth, the committee said

Twitter independently decided to restrict sharing of the article, with workers at the company debating the decision at the time, according to internal Twitter communications posted by Substack writer Matt Taibbi. Former Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey told Congress in 2020 that the company made a mistake in limiting the article from being shared under its hacked materials policy. He said the company reviewed criticism of its decision and changed its hacked materials policy.

Apple to disclose more information about app removals

Apple will give more information about governmental requests for the company to remove apps from its App Store, but it still won’t say why individual apps were taken down, the Financial Times’s Kenza Bryan and Patrick McGee report. Apple, which has long been scrutinized for restricting access to certain apps in countries around the world, declined to comment to the outlet.

“It will now give investors more detail about apps that are taken down in its Transparency Report, including how many apps each country has requested be removed, whether the request is based on a legal violation, and whether Apple complied,” Bryan and McGee write, citing people familiar with an agreement.

“Apple has agreed to publish the legal basis for removal requests by each government in its next report, according to Tulipshare, alongside a breakdown by country and app category,” they write. The company has also “committed to start disclosing how many apps it removes for violating App Store or developer license agreement guidelines by country,” Bryan and McGee write.

An unredacted court filing laid out Google’s antitrust arguments

Google argued that a judge should dismiss an antitrust lawsuit over Google’s search and advertising dominance, Reuters’s Diane Bartz reports. The arguments were revealed in an unredacted court filing, which was filed in redacted form last month.

“In its 51-page filing, Google argued that [U.S. District Judge Amit] Mehta should throw out the Justice Department case in part because the company's agreements with Apple and others allow them to promote rivals, like Microsoft's Bing search engine,” Bartz writes. “The company also argued that its search engine was popular with browsers and consumers entirely because of its quality, and that it was inappropriate for the government to require Google to refrain from competing to be the default on smartphones.”

Inside the industry

Twitter says ‘no evidence’ user data being sold online came from hack (Variety)

Chinese social media app Kwai played a role in Brazil riot (Semafor)

Workforce report

Microsoft says it will give U.S. workers unlimited time off (Bloomberg News)

Meta confirms it’s rescinded some full-time job offers (The Verge)


Twitter said to consider selling user names to boost revenue (New York Times)

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