With help from John Hendel, Mohana Ravindranath, Leah Nylen and Martin Matishak
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— 25 years of the Telecom Act: The anniversary of the sweeping 1996 law comes one year into a pandemic that has magnified opportunities and disparities across the broadband world — and as new leadership in Washington promises fresh action on these issues.
— Something our ancestors didn’t anticipate: 23andMe’s plans to go public are already raising eyebrows about potential privacy and ethical issues as sensitive genetic information changes hands.
— The push for an official digital ID: Sponsors of legislation to overhaul how the government handles personal digital identification are renewing their effort.
IT’S MONDAY; WELCOME BACK TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.
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THEY SAY IT’S YOUR BIRTHDAY: HAPPY 25TH, TELECOM ACT! — Today marks 25 years since President Bill Clinton signed into law the 1996 Telecommunications Act, aimed at expanding competition in the telecom space. Watch for a celebratory video going live at noon from acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel that’ll feature House Energy and Commerce Chair Frank Pallone (D-N.J.); Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.); Reps. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.); and other telecom leaders including Reed Hundt, Larry Irving, Susan Ness, Gloria Tristani and Rachelle Chong.
— Connecting the past to the present, with the law that created E-Rate: Rosenworcel will use today’s anniversary to highlight her ambitions to revamp the FCC’s E-Rate program to support virtual learning. (The subsidy program helps provide discounted connectivity services to schools and libraries.) She will join Rep. Jahana Hayes (D-Conn.) for a 2:30 p.m. Twitter chat — which you can follow using #TelecomActChat — on ways to use that program to tackle the so-called digital Homework Gap. “Right now I think we need ‘no child left offline,’” Rosenworcel said during a University of Virginia event on Thursday.
— The ’96 Act’s upsides: It was “the dawn of the revolution,” Markey told telecom lawyers last week during an event. “Because before that bill passed and was signed, no one in America had high-speed internet access.” The act “triggered paranoia-inducing Darwinian competition,” contended the senator, who helped usher through the overhaul during his House years.
Markey recently led more than 30 other Senate Democrats in urging Rosenworcel to unlock E-Rate subsidies for online learning. Separately, he and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) are today reintroducing the National Broadband Plan for the Future Act.
— Any points of contention? Housed within the ’96 law was Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the online liability shield that’s now the subject of bipartisan calls for reform. Still other critics argue a telecom rewrite is necessary due to the way the act regulates different types of communications services differently.
— Elsewhere in broadband land, net neutrality fight sees fresh life under Biden: Tech trade group Incompas — whose members include Amazon, Facebook and Netflix — has petitioned the FCC to revive Obama-era net neutrality rules. Expect a fight over this issue to dominate many months ahead for the Biden-era agency, particularly once Democrats obtain a three-member majority.
— Context: For years, federal agencies and lawmakers have warned of the pitfalls of putting sensitive genetic information in the wrong hands, including employment or insurance discrimination. The FTC was investigating 23andMe and competitor Ancestry’s privacy practices in 2018, Fast Company reported, though the agency doesn’t comment on ongoing investigations.
A 23andMe spokesperson emphasized that users must proactively opt-in to share their genetic data for research and can withdraw their data at any time. They also must offer separate and explicit consent for any individual-level data to be shared, and all research is overseen by an outside review board, the spokesperson said.
The company’s privacy statement notes that in the event of a merger, customer data “would remain subject to the promises made in any pre-existing privacy statement,” the spokesperson said.
— The $3.5 billion deal still needs to be approved by VGAC shareholders, but that’s expected in the second quarter of 2021, the companies said.
SPEAKING OF MERGERS: FTC’S SLAUGHTER DEFENDS SLOWING MERGER REVIEWS — The FTC’s two Republicans, conservative commentators and the top GOP senator on antitrust — Mike Lee of Utah — are blasting the agency after it announced last week that all mergers must now undergo the full 30-day review.
— Acting FTC Chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter justified the decision to suspend so-called early terminations to ensure the agency is effectively screening for deals that raise competition concerns. “Early termination might speed up [a deal] by two weeks. … That is not a six month moratorium on a merger,” she said Friday at a Global Competition Review conference. Her announcement Thursday suspended early terminations at both the FTC and DOJ, though Slaughter was the one who requested it, according to an individual involved in the discussions. The Democrat wants to reconsider how the FTC considers early termination requests after discovering that her agency’s process differs from the DOJ’s, the person said, speaking anonymously to explain confidential discussions.
SHOW ME SOME (SECURE AND DIGITAL) I.D. — A bipartisan pair of House lawmakers will soon revive a bill that would revamp the government’s approach to personal digital identification for U.S. citizens, my colleague Martin Matishak reports. The legislation — dubbed the “Improving Digital Identity Act” — was introduced last year but expired at the end of the 116th Congress without being acted on. Now, the measure’s main boosters, Bill Foster (D-Ill.) and John Katko (R-N.Y.), intend to reintroduce it in the next four to eight weeks.
— Momentum around the issue is building with the rise in telehealth services during the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s just a long list of government uses once you have this ID” that would make the federal government “a leader instead of a laggard,” said Foster, a member of the Financial Services Committee. He said those uses could range from electronic health records to voter identification. (A majority of Americans already jump through electronic confirmation hoops for things like online banking and airport check-ins.)
— Foster said he was looking for a “strong partner” to introduce a Senate version of the bill but declined to offer names. Speaking at a webinar on Friday, Katko, the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee, predicted the legislation would pass the lower chamber and said he’s had “very good discussions” with Sen. Rob Portman, his Senate counterpart. A Portman spokesperson confirmed that the two had talked about the issue and that the retiring Ohio Republican would review the legislation. “My staff and I are building bridges, not burning them,” Katko said. “Bipartisanship’s not a dirty word … contrary to what you might see on the news.”
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) was named the top Republican on the House Judiciary’s intellectual property subcommittee and a member of its antitrust subcommittee.
Pamela Karlan, a Stanford Law professor who had been serving on Facebook’s independent oversight board, is resigning to join the Justice Department’s civil rights division, Cristiano reports. … Kate Tummarello, who has been Engine’s policy director since 2019, was named its new executive director. … Ben Nimmo, former director of investigations at Graphika, is joining Facebook to help lead the company’s “global threat intelligence strategy against influence operations.”
Rishi Bharwani, who has led tech policy for the office of Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), is joining Accountable Tech as the organization’s partnerships and policy director. … Quincy Brown and Audrey Rembert are co-chairing the Association for Computing Machinery’s recently formed Committee on Systemic Change, a group working to promote racial equity.
Digital Realty joined the Information Technology Industry Council. … Oracle and Mastercard are joining forces to launch “an automated, end-to-end solution to help governments, nonprofits and financial services firms streamline the delivery of economic assistance around the world.”
One for you, and one for you: The fraught role of algorithms in vaccine distribution, and how they’re exacerbating health care disparities, via NYT.
Something for something: “Donald Trump’s business sought a stake in Parler before he would join,” BuzzFeed News reports.
Twitter takedown: “Twitter on Saturday issued a permanent suspension for the account run by Jim Hoft, founder and editor-in-chief of far-right news website Gateway Pundit, for violations of its ‘civic integrity policy,’” The Hill reports.
Opinion: “States are failing on big tech and privacy — Biden must take the lead,” Rashida Richardson, a senior fellow with the German Marshall Fund’s Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative, and Albert Fox Cahn, founder and executive director of the Urban Justice Center’s Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, write in The Hill.
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