The Technology 202: The White House gathering with state attorneys general could escalate tensions between Trump and Silicon Valley

“Online censorship goes far beyond the issue of free speech, it’s also one of protecting consumers and ensuring they are informed of their rights and resources to fight back under the law,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in a statement earlier this week. “State attorneys general are on the front lines of this issue and President Trump wants to hear their perspectives.”

The White House summit builds on an executive order that Trump signed just a few months ago, which targeted a key legal shield granting tech companies broad immunity from lawsuits for the videos, photos and posts shared on their services, as well as their content moderation decisions. Tech companies have long denied the allegations of bias, which have been made with little evidence, and a prominent tech industry group has challenged the constitutionality of that order.

An escalation of anti-conservative bias claims could drum up support among Trump’s base in the final pre-election stretch.

Republicans have been escalating allegations tech companies are censoring them as Election Day approaches, making such accusations in hearings on Capitol Hill and in posts on the very services they say are biased against them. Trump particularly has been more aggressive as companies adopt new policies on violent rhetoric and misinformation that could result in a greater crackdown on many of his posts. 

Just last week, Trump accused Twitter of bias against Republicans when the company moved to label a pair of his tweets that cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election. 

Republican attorneys general from Arizona, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas and Utah are planning to attend today’s gathering. Lynn Fitch, a Republican from Mississippi, said she hoped to work with Attorney General William P. Barr and Trump to “ensure that the digital town square remains open and free to all people’s voices.”

Defenders of the tech industry’s legal shield are preemptively pushing back on the gathering. 

“Efforts to weaken Section 230 to address unsubstantiated claims of ‘bias’ by a few platforms would jeopardize efforts by countless online services — from neighborhood listservs to large social media companies — to remove misinformation and illegal or dangerous content,” Internet Association interim president and CEO Jon Berroya said. “It is because of, not in spite of, Section 230, that so many voices from across the political spectrum can express their thoughts online.”

Even some conservative-leaning groups are uneasy with the White House push. 

“Government attempts to impose fairness or bully private companies into enforcing their preferred speech codes will only hurt speech especially conservative speech,” said Jesse Blumenthal, who leads technology and innovation across the Koch network. “For anyone tempted by the siren song of speech controls on the Internet, I’d ask you to consider this: Would you want your political opponents deciding who gets to say what on social media?”

The Justice Department is also preparing a proposal to limit the tech companies’ legal protections. 

The agency is expected to today submit to Congress proposal to force Google, Facebook and Twitter to take more responsibility for the content on their sites, two people familiar with the matter tell Tony. The proposal builds on the president’s executive order, and it aims to ensure the companies are addressing harmful content and fairly moderating users’ posts. 

The legislation is unlikely to pass this year, but the next Congress could take it up as both Republicans and Democrats, including former vice president Joe Biden, say they’re interested in changing or even outright revoking Section 230. Lawmakers from both parties have introduced proposals to change the legal provision in recent months. 

Washington regulators are also getting closer to bringing their case against Google.  

The Justice Department is expected to meet with state attorneys general this week to discuss an impending lawsuit against Google. The timeline puts federal competition watchdogs on track to file a case against the compant as early as next week, Tony reports, though the situation is fluid and could change. 

The case is expected to focus on Google’s power over Internet search, the New York Times reports. The department had also probed Google’s position in ad technology, but ultimately decided to move forward with search in an effort to file the suit sooner.

Our top tabs

Experts will tell Congress today that the coronavirus pandemic has made federal privacy legislation urgent.

“Our nation’s children, who are taking classes over Zoom and connecting with their peers on Tik Tok, would be at less risk from privacy predators and data-amassing cyberazzi, former Federal Trade Commission chairman Jon Leibowitz said in his prepared testimony for a Senate Commerce Committee hearing today on a federal privacy framework.

Other witnesses echoed the sentiment in testimony they submitted to the committee. 

Microsoft’s “principles are not a substitute for a robust privacy law,” Julie Brill, former FTC commissioner and current vice president of global privacy at Microsoft, said in her prepared testimony. We need clear national rules that cover the broad swath of personal information to help all organizations understand how they can responsibly use data including sensitive health data to develop innovative and trusted technologies designed to address COVID-19.

But disagreement persists between the two parties over whether a federal law should preempt state laws.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) introduced legislation last week that would require businesses to allow consumers to access, correct, delete or port their data. The bill would also prohibit companies from transferring consumers sensitive data without their consent. The protections would be enforced by the FTC. 

So far the bill hasn’t garnered any Democratic co-sponsors. The committee’s ranking Democrat, Sen. Maria Cantwell (Wash.), put out a privacy bill similar to Wicker’s last year that would coexist with state laws, rather than preempt them.

Other witnesses will include former FTC officials William Kovacic and Maureen Ohlhausen and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Consumer advocates are already lining up against Wicker’s bill.

A group of 20 civil society groups, including New America’s Open Technology Institute, Color of Change and Public Citizen, wrote a letter to the committee calling on it to reject Wicker’s bill on the grounds that it doesn’t adequately safeguard users from online tracking and fails to address civil rights concerns. 

“While the SAFE DATA Act would be a slight improvement on the status quo, it fails to fulfill these principles,” the groups wrote.

Facebook took down Chinese accounts targeting the 2020 election.

It’s the first time Facebook has removed accounts from China for inauthentic behavior targeted at the 2020 election, Craig Timberg reports

The 10 accounts and five pages promoted and criticized both Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. The inauthentic groups, which also included groups for former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, had fewer than 2,000 members in total. One pro-Trump group had only three members.

“The U.S.-focused content was the least and last part of the operation,” said Ben Nimmo, head of investigations for Graphika. “Most of the U.S.-focused assets were taken down when they were a few months old, so they didn’t have time to build a substantial audience.”

It’s unclear if the accounts had any affiliation with the Chinese government, Facebook said. 

The takedowns were announced the same day the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security’s cyber division issued a warning that foreign actors are seeking to spread disinformation regarding the results of the 2020 election.

Facebook removed 155 accounts, 11 pages, and nine groups from China from its main platform and six accounts from Instagram. The operation largely focused on influencing audiences in Taiwan and the Philippines on Chinese policy concerns such as the U.S. presence in the South China Sea. 

Amazon is making it harder for rival electronics brands to promote their products, potentially adding to antitrust concerns.

But Amazon places Amazon products in sponsored placements above searches for rivals, such as Roku —  potentially giving it an unfair advantage. To find a Roku Ultra, the Journal had to scroll down to the fourth result — under a sponsored ad from a competitor and two Amazon resellers. Amazon also featured its Fire TV products over Roku in search results for “Roku Streaming Stick.”

Limiting keywords in its advertising service is part of the strategy when Amazon launches a new product, sources told the Journal. Employees are then reportedly told to mark emails about the discussion as “privileged and confidential” in the subject line to avoid regulatory scrutiny. Amazon denied the claims.

Amazon is currently facing antitrust scrutiny from members of Congress as well the Justice Department for allegedly abusing its market power.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon defended its practices.

News flash: retailers promote their own products and often don’t sell products of competitors,” Amazon spokesman Drew Herdener wrote in a statement to the Journal. “Walmart refuses to sell [Amazon brands] Kindle, Fire TV, and Echo. Shocker. In the Journal’s next story they will uncover gambling in Las Vegas.” 

Hill happenings

Three Democratic congresswomen are asking the FTC to investigate deceptive practices by food delivery apps.

The lawmakers say food delivery platforms including Grubhub and Uber Eats are using their market dominance to nickel-and-dime independent restaurant owners, who have few choices. 

“The platforms have used this leverage to set excessive fees and commissions, and to undertake multiple coercive and potentially deceptive marketing actions such as creating fake phone numbers and websites for restaurants and offering delivery services without restaurants’ consent,” Reps. Mary Gay Scanlon (D-Pa.), Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Calif.) wrote in a letter to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons.

While some cities have stepped in to cap delivery fees for restaurants, the letter argues that the FTC needs to more widely probe the impact of the consolidation on the restaurant industry. For instance, the letter urges the FTC to investigate Uber’s acquisition of Postmates.

“We are very concerned that these firms’ paths to profitability will likely come from eliminating competition, charging higher fees to restaurants and consumers, and misclassifying and undercompensating the workers who perform the labor of delivering the food.”

Coronavirus fallout

The CDC is planning a text-tracking system for the first vaccine recipients.

A federal advisory group says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will send daily text messages to the first coronavirus vaccine recipients asking about their side effects for the first week after they get the shot, Anna Edney of Bloomberg News reports. 

After that, the recipients will be contacted once a week. The first group could encompass about 20 million essential workers. The government is still setting up the technology to make it work. Users will be able to opt out.


Rant and rave

We don’t understand teens, but thankfully Taylor Lorenz at the New York Times does.

Well, Taylor and brand managers:


  • The Senate Commerce Committee will hold a hearing, “Revisiting the Need for Federal Data Privacy Legislation,” today at 10 a.m.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing on social medias role in radicalizing Americans on Thursday at 11 a.m.
  • New Americas Open Technology Institute will hold a virtual panel exploring how Internet platforms are addressing the spread of election-related misinformation on Oct. 1 at 1:30 p.m.

Before you log off

This performance deserves an Oscar.

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