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Big Tech trying to ‘weaponize’ U.S. trade talks, Democrats warn
A group of prominent Democratic lawmakers is urging the Biden administration to reject efforts by Big Tech to influence U.S. trade talks, warning that industry groups are trying to co-opt negotiations to evade regulations both at home and abroad.
In a letter Friday to the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and other lawmakers sounded the alarm on what they called a push to “tie Congress’s and regulators’ hands” in its ongoing negotiations over Indo-Pacific trade.
If successful, the tech giants may be able to dodge rules targeting anti-competitive conduct in the sector by claiming those policies constitute “illegal trade discrimination,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter, shared exclusively with The Technology 202.
The missive reflects mounting concern in Washington that tech companies are trying to preempt regulatory threats through under-the-radar trade provisions while Congress is still debating its next steps on issues like competition and privacy.
The warning arrives as the administration tries to hammer out a trade framework with 13 other countries, including Japan, South Korea and Australia, in one of the first major tests of how it will approach the contentious debate around digital trade.
The bloc has said it plans to tackle issues around the “digital economy,” including how to advance “inclusive digital trade by … addressing discriminatory practices,” but it is still negotiating a deal. Lawmakers and consumer advocates have expressed concern about U.S. negotiators reusing past language that companies could seize on to push back on regulations, including those the United States struck in its trade pact with Mexico and Canada.
It’s an issue that has forged unlikely alliances between officials on both sides of the aisle. In 2019, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) each urged the Trump administration to drop from its talks with Canada and Mexico language that could limit Congress’s ability to tackle the tech industry’s liability protections under Section 230.
“The U.S. is committed to building trust and promoting confidence in the digital economy and seeks to include provisions designed to avoid unfair trade practices, while recognizing the need to be able to address legitimate public policy objectives in the digital trade area,” USTR spokesman Sam Michel said in a statement.
“We have received the letter and will respond through appropriate channels,” Commerce spokesman Charlie Andrews said in an email.
In the latest Indo-Pacific trade talks, U.S. officials have offered a digital trade proposal that closely resembles its past pact with Mexico and Canada, according to two people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive material.
That previous deal included a digital trade section that stated that no participating countries “shall accord less favorable treatment to a digital product … of another” or “prohibit or restrict the cross-border transfer of information, including personal information, by electronic means.”
Congressional offices in recent weeks have reviewed the new proposal, which is classified, at secure facilities on Capitol Hill, the people said.
While Democratic lawmakers declined to address the terms of the proposal in their letter, they expressed concern that industry groups are trying to "weaponize" its provisions to kneecap efforts to rein in companies’ competition and data privacy practices and their use of artificial intelligence.
A spokesperson for Warren, who led the letter, declined to comment on the contents of the U.S. proposal.
The letter was co-signed by a number of Democratic leaders on competition, privacy and trade policy, including Sens. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Sherrod Brown (Ohio) and Richard Blumenthal (Conn.) and Reps. David N. Cicilline (R.I.), Jan Schakowsky (Ill.) and Rosa L. DeLauro (Conn.).
Lawmakers are also raising concern about the “speed” and opaque nature of the talks.
They noted that “only a few cleared advisors, Members of Congress, and their staff with security clearances were allowed to see” the proposal the United States has offered “due to its classification status, hindering the ability of Congress and the public to meaningfully engage.”
While USTR has not publicly disclosed any negotiating text regarding digital trade for the Indo-Pacific talks, the agency released a summary stating that the “proposed text includes provisions addressing data protection, consumer protection, and artificial intelligence that support inclusive growth by promoting trust in the digital economy.”
Michel, the USTR spokesman, said the agency has conducted nearly 400 briefings with members of Congress in the past year, including on the Indo-Pacific talks.
Foreign officials have said the Indo-Pacific talks could wrap as soon as November.
Our top tabs
British government set to unveil bill for creating Big Tech regulator
The U.K. will introduce legislation this week to create a regulatory unit focused on addressing concerns surrounding the market dominance of Big Tech companies, Kate Beioley and Jim Pickard report for the Financial Times.
Under the bill, the regulatory body would be placed in the U.K. Competition and Markets Authority, the competition watchdog, with powers “to specifically target the so-called Big Tech companies” such as Google and Amazon, the report says, citing people familiar with the plans.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“According to details of the legislation … the new regulator will target a small number of tech companies generating at least [$31.12 billion] in global turnover, or [$1.24 billion] in the UK, with tailored rules,” Beioley and Pickard write.
Additionally, companies would have to nominate an individual responsible for regulatory compliance purposes, and the regulator would be able to fine companies that fail to comply with information requests.
“Two officials told the FT that the legislation would be published during the week beginning April 24,” the report says. “The government declined to comment on the exact timing but confirmed that the bill would be introduced to parliament soon.”
Twitter jettisons state-controlled media labels, making propaganda harder to detect
Twitter on Thursday removed labels that designate state-controlled media accounts on the platform, a move that allows propaganda from nations like China and Russia to spread without users knowing whether they could be seeing false or biased content, our colleague Joseph Menn reports.
The move came “while many Twitter followers were distracted by the removal of hundreds of thousands of legacy blue check marks for verified public figures, and in the same week that Russia and China were revealed to have been operating armies of fake profiles to sway U.S. debate,” Joseph writes.
The platform under Elon Musk has also ended its policy of not recommending accounts belonging to state-backed media.
Joseph reported last Sunday that Russian operators of fake social media accounts that spread online disinformation claim their accounts are flagged by social media platforms just 1 percent of the time.
Broadband worker shortage affecting Biden administration’s high-speed internet goals
A shortage of fiber splicers that install and maintain wireless broadband infrastructure is hampering the Biden administration’s plan to deploy high-speed internet to rural America, writes Will Feuer for the Wall Street Journal.
The shortage comes as regulators are expected to roll out billions in investments toward internet build-outs this year through the Commerce Department’s Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment Program.
“As soon as everyone gets rolling on these projects, the supply chain is just going to get worse and the workforce is going to get slim,” Jimmy Lewis, co-founder of Louisiana-based Cajun Broadband, told the Journal.
“The result could be a worsening of the delays and cost inflation that already are plaguing wired-internet providers’ network-expansion projects,” Feuer writes, citing industry analysts and executives.
Rant and rave
Twitter appears to have given critics of its Twitter Blue subscription service a blue check mark which designates they are subscribed to Twitter Blue. Tech journalist Kara Swisher:
Good lord, I’ve been LeBroned, Shatnered, Kinged without my consent. No means no, boys. pic.twitter.com/XnbMVydOqW— Kara Swisher (@karaswisher) April 22, 2023
PEN America’s Twitter account:
Spite checkmarks: Twitter is awarding unwanted blue verification badges to some of the most prominent accounts—including @dril, @mattbinder and @hasanthehun—associated with the campaign to #BlockTheBlueChecks and other Musk critics including @karaswisher. https://t.co/p87SuM5AlD— PEN America (@PENamerica) April 23, 2023
Mashable reporter Matt Binder:
elon clearly wanted to comp the blue check for the two most popular and most handsome leftists on the internet https://t.co/ayIuMXZ8Kh— Matt Binder (@MattBinder) April 23, 2023
Inside the industry
These celebrities ‘subscribed to Twitter Blue.’ Except they’re dead. (Annabelle Timsit and Marisa Iati)
- Christopher Garcia officially joined Uber as a senior associate on the company’s Federal Affairs team. He held previous positions at the Interior Department, in the Biden-Harris White House, and in Congress.
Before you log off
Today’s @washingtonpost TikTok features Elon Musk’s week. Including plans for his new AI company, the SpaceX Starship explosion, removing blue check marks, and Tesla stock falling: https://t.co/flTYcj6Hpm pic.twitter.com/UeRC4P61Uk— carmella (@carmellaboykin) April 21, 2023
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