With help from Leah Nylen
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— Merger overload: The number of mergers that the FTC and DOJ must review doubled in 2021, and the agencies are struggling to keep up.
– CUP check-in: House Democrats wrote to six privacy compliance organizations asking how they follow self-regulation guidelines related to a 1998 children’s online privacy law.
— FCC draft rule: The Federal Communications Commission has released its draft rulemaking spelling out how to implement its Affordable Connectivity Program, which received $14.2 billion in the infrastructure bill.
HAPPY MONDAY. It’s Rebecca Kern, POLITICO’s newest tech policy reporter, and I’m leading Morning Tech this week. It’s my first MT rodeo so please send lots of scoops and tips at @Rebeccamkern or via email at [email protected].
Also, drumroll: Folks, we’ve got some exciting news! Brendan Bordelon will be joining POLITICO as Morning Tech’s newsletter author on Jan. 25. He plans to dive into emerging tech debates reshaping the industry. Brendan joins us after covering tech policy at National Journal and Morning Consult. Give him a big POLITICO welcome!
FIRST IN MT: MORE LIKE A MERGER TSUNAMI — The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department have been warning for months that a surge in merger filings has stretched them thin. They weren’t just grousing: In 2021, companies reported 4,130 mergers to the two agencies — more than double the number from the previous year, according to an analysis by the law firm White & Case. In December alone, businesses reported 285 mergers, dwarfing any previous December figure since 2011 (even though December often sees a surge, as companies seek to wrap up deals by the end of the calendar year).
The flood of deals has forced the agencies to devote more of their already scarce resources to them. The FTC has moved some attorneys focused on policy and international affairs, for example, to help with merger review. Under law, the FTC and DOJ only have 30 days to decide whether a deal warrants a more in-depth probe, an added time pressure.
Plea for funds: Neither agency responded to a request for comment from MT on how the tidal wave of mergers has affected their operations. Both the DOJ and FTC have pleaded with Congress for more money, particularly after their hopes for a $500 million boost for each agency died along with the rest of the Democrats’ social spending bill. The text of a bill by Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to increase the money the agencies receive from merger filings was tucked into the Senate-passed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, but the House has yet to act on it.
FCC UNVEILS AFFORDABLE BROADBAND RULE — FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel issued a draft rulemaking on Friday for the $14.2 billion Affordable Connectivity Program, based on directives in the infrastructure bill signed into law in mid-November. The program provides broadband service credits of up to $30 per month for eligible households and up to $75 a month for households on tribal lands. It also provides households a one-time payment of $100 to go toward a computer or tablet. Rosenworcel will have to gain support from at least two of her fellow FCC commissioners to ensure the rule is ultimately adopted — and one of those votes will need to come from a Republican, given the commission’s 2-2 partisan split.
The draft rule explains how the additional $14.2 billion provided in the infrastructure bill would be used to transition a temporary Covid-era initiative into a longer-term broadband affordability program.
The rule would establish household eligibility requirements, adopt consumer protection rules and establish consent requirements to help households already enrolled in broadband subsidies transition to the new program, among other provisions. To date, the FCC has helped enroll approximately 90,000 households in the new affordability program, and more than 9 million households have transitioned from the temporary version of it.
— Separately, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is seeking public comment on the $48.2 billion allocated in the infrastructure bill to deploy broadband to unserved and underserved populations.
FIRST IN MT: DEMOCRATS QUESTION COPPA ENFORCEMENT — Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Consumer Protection and Commerce Subcommittee, and Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) wrote on Friday to six privacy compliance organizations — BBB National Programs, the Entertainment Software Rating Board, iKeepSafe, kidSAFE, Privacy Vaults Online and TrustArc — about how they handle data under the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
— These organizations operate under FTC’s “safe harbor” program, meaning they are allowed to draft guidelines that, once approved by the FTC, companies can use to implement the children’s privacy protections required by COPPA. Former FTC Commissioner Rohit Copra has criticized these organizations, saying the FTC and Congress need to do more to oversee them.
— In their letter, the lawmakers asked the organizations how their safe harbor programs require “substantially the same or greater protections” as those in COPPA, and what disciplinary actions the organizations impose when operators they work with don’t comply with safe harbor guidelines. They also asked what Congress can do to improve the safe harbor program and how FTC can amend the COPPA rule to better protect children’s privacy. They requested a response by Jan. 28.
MOZILLA TO STUDY FACEBOOK’S TRACKING — Firefox developer Mozilla is announcing today that it’s partnering with The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom, to study how Facebook tracks users across the internet. Mozilla’s Rally, a privacy-focused data-sharing platform created last June, will work with The Markup to study how Facebook’s ad tracking system, using code known as a “pixel,” follows users online. The study seeks to discover the type of data Facebook’s pixel collects, the sites it shares this data with and the extent of Facebook’s tracking network.
PRIVACY GROUPS PUSH FOR FTC, FCC CONFIRMATIONS — Privacy advocacy groups Free Press Action and Fight for the Future are urging Senate Democrats to quickly confirm Gigi Sohn as an FCC commissioner and Alvaro Bedoya as an FTC commissioner. President Joe Biden renominated both nominees on Tuesday after the Senate failed to confirm them in December. Both the FCC and the FTC currently have 2-2 partisan splits, making it difficult for their Democratic chairs to advance controversial items.
— “There’s no time to waste and so much to get done at the FCC: ensuring the billions being invested in broadband actually reach those who need it most, restoring Net Neutrality and Title II, reckoning with media regulators’ history on race and repairing the damage of the Trump years,” Free Press Action Co-CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement. He also said the FTC is poised to take on deceptive and harmful practices of large tech companies like Meta and Google. “Further delay is unacceptable,” he said.
— Timing: The Senate Commerce Committee expects to hold a markup to vote on nominees, which may include Sohn and Bedoya, the week of Jan. 24, according to a committee spokesperson.
META LAUNCHES PRIVACY CENTER — Meta, the parent company of Facebook, announced a new privacy center on Friday to educate users on how the company collects and uses people’s information. The center will be deployed to the Facebook app in the coming months, and will include modules covering five topics: security, sharing, collection, use and ads.
Carolyn McIntyre, the president of the California Cable & Telecommunications Association, announced she has resigned after serving for 14 years. She hasn’t announced her next gig. … Dirk Auer has been promoted to director of competition policy at the International Center for Law & Economics, where he’ll work on competition and antitrust issues in the U.S., U.K. and Europe.
Lawbreaking: U.S. Chamber of Commerce members have racked up more than $154 billion in penalties since 2000, according to a Public Citizen report that calls into question the group’s outrage over stiffer FTC enforcement, POLITICO’s Leah Nylen reports.
Airport 5G ‘buffer zones’: The Federal Aviation Administration released a list of 50 airports that need 5G wireless “buffer zones” to mitigate signal interference and ensure planes land safely, POLITICO’s Oriana Pawlyk reports.
What have we learned? Former Texas Rep. Will Hurd thinks the U.S. is no more prepared a year after the Jan. 6 insurrection to deal with misinformation online, according to an interview with Wired.
Eyes on Oculus: The U.K.’s data watchdog is looking to talk with Meta about parental controls for its VRChat, an app for the Oculus virtual reality device, The Guardian reports.
Amazon reduces Covid leave: Amazon told its U.S. employees that it would cut its paid leave for those to test positive for Covid-19 from 10 days to seven days, following the announcement of shortened quarantine guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Bigger in Texas: Meta has recently leased half of a high-rise under construction in downtown Austin that will be the city’s tallest building when completed, the Austin Business Journal reports.
Making an exit: Meta’s head of communications, John Pinette, told employees Friday that he’s leaving the company, The Wall Street Journal reports.
New iPhone: Apple is expected to release a new iPhone SE this spring, Bloomberg reports.
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