Biden warned against blocking internet in Russia- POLITICO
With help from Emily Birnbaum
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— Don’t pull the plug:Digital rights groupsare urging the White House to preserve internet access for ordinary Russians before it’s too late.
— Big spenders:Four tech lobbying groups spent nearly $2 million on Facebook ads criticizing antitrust bills that target the major tech companies — and that’s just since the start of this year.
— Omnibus disappoints:Science and technology advocates had hoped the sprawling new budget bill would provide more money for federal R&D agencies.
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BIDEN URGED TO PREVENT INTERNET SHUTDOWN FOR RUSSIA: As foreign tech companies stream out of Russia and the Ukrainian government calls for greater efforts to isolate Moscow from any and all digital technologies, a bevy of civil society groups are asking President Joe Biden to safeguard basic internet access for regular Russians.
“Let’s not do Putin’s dirty work for him,” said Peter Micek, the general counsel and UN policy manager at digital rights group Access Now, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Micek said any move to shut off Russian internet access would play into the Kremlin’s effort to control Russians’ access to outside information.
— Drawing a line: In a letter sent this morning to Biden, 41 digital rights groups — led by Access Now and the nonprofit Wikimedia Foundation — pushed the president to avoid new tech sanctions from the U.S. or its allies that would disrupt internet access in Russia, and to tell tech companies around the world not to deny uncensored internet access to the Russian people.
The groups warned moving to shut down the internet inside Russia could “hurt individuals attempting to organize in opposition to the war, report openly and honestly on events in Russia and access information about what is happening in Ukraine and abroad.”
— Clarity needed: The groups also asked Biden to direct the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to clarify that the tight technology sanctions imposed on the Russia by the U.S. and its allies do not extend to bedrock connectivity technologies like routers, smartphones and the software and services needed to connect citizens to the global internet. The groups cited recent pullouts by internet service providers Cogent and Lumen as evidence companies are worried about running afoul of sanctions.
“Unless and until Treasury issues formal guidance, corporate lawyers [and] the general counsels of all these companies are going to say, ‘When in doubt, overcomply,’” said Rebecca MacKinnon, the head of global advocacy at the Wikimedia Foundation.
MacKinnon and Micek both noted that OFAC has issued general licenses for basic information and communications technologies in past instances where U.S. technology sanctions were applied, including for Iran and in the wake of Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
— Congress, take note: Kate Ruane, the head public policy specialist for the U.S. at the Wikimedia Foundation, said it’s also incumbent upon Congress to take steps to preserve Russians’ access to the internet and other basic electronic communication tools. She said that includes voting against the EARN IT Act (S. 3538), bipartisan legislation to restrict platforms’ Section 230 liability protections that critics say will also endanger end-to-end encryption services, which are often relied upon by dissidents. Those services, she said, are “without doubt keeping people in Russia and Ukraine alive right now.”
TECH SPENDS BIG ON ANTI-ANTITRUST ADS: Four trade groups and advocacy organizations representing the major tech companies spent roughly $2 million on Facebook advertisements opposing tech-related antitrust bills since the start of the year. That number, which comes courtesy of an analysis of Facebook’s ad archives by Emily, will likely only increase as legislation to rein in the power of the tech giants moves through the House and Senate.
Ad buys from tech trade group NetChoice made up the bulk of that spending. The group, which counts Google, Facebook and Amazon as members, spent around $1.5 million on Facebook ads targeting antitrust legislation since January. The Connected Commerce Council, a business advocacy organization which receives money from Google and Amazon, came in second, with around $300,000 in ad buys opposing antitrust bills. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance spent a little less than $200,000 on similar Facebook ads, while the Chamber of Progress spent around $18,000.
Robert Winterton, a spokesperson for NetChoice, said the group has used “a variety of competing ad options to educate Americans unaware of the progressive antitrust crusade against services that they rely on.” Connected Commerce Council executive director Rob Retzlaff said the group’s advertising is geared towards educating small businesses about legislation that could make their digital tools less effective. And Chamber of Progress CEO Adam Kovacevich said his group’s ads “educate voters about how the bill would impact them, and highlight Democrats who have raised concerns about the bill.” A Taxpayers Protection Alliance spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.
— What they’re messaging: The four groups have been relatively unified in their messaging against the antitrust bills, generally arguing that the legislation would give a leg up to China, decimate small businesses and break popular services like Amazon Prime.
The ads, which often feature bright yellow “warning” signs and people staring forlornly at their computer screens, received a total of at least 25 million impressions, according to Facebook’s ad archives. There was a significant uptick in spending around Jan. 20, when the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (S. 2992) passed the Senate Judiciary Committee.
— Facebook ‘twofer’: Critics of the big tech companies said it’s concerning that tech groups receiving money from Facebook funnel that money right back into Facebook. “Using their market share to promote their agenda on the platform they control — how very monopoly of them,” said Sacha Haworth, the executive director at the progressive Tech Oversight Project.
— A wider lens: The nearly $2 million in Facebook ads only accounts for a small fraction of the spending by the tech lobby targeting antitrust bills now moving through the House and Senate. The Computer and Communications Industry Association, for instance, has not spent money on Facebook advertising —but it has launched a multi-pronged lobbying and PR campaign to agitate against the bills.
OMNIBUS SPENDING ON R&D UNDERWHELMS: Final appropriations for a wide range of federal science and technology agencies came in well short of budgets proposals floated by the White House and Congress in recent months — even as Biden and congressional leadership tout their commitment to a new surge in R&D efforts to combat China and boost America’s global competitiveness.
— Steady slide: An analysis by advocacy group the American Association for the Advancement of Science of the omnibus spending bill (H.R. 2741), which was released in the early hours of Wednesday morning, shows significantly smaller increases in R&D funding compared to Biden’s fiscal year 2022 budget request, as well as earlier authorizing targets set by recent House and Senate spending bills. The cuts were particularly pronounced for the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Institutes of Health, which will all receive much smaller budget increases than initially proposed. (Two notable exceptions: the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security’s research budgets, which both increased well above initial authorization targets.)
— Disappointed, not surprised: “There’s a pretty long history of aggressive authorizations in many areas of science and research that haven’t actually been met with actual appropriations,” said Matt Hourihan, the director of the R&D budget and policy program at AAAS. The omnibus, he said, is “another unfortunate chapter in that longer story.”
— Tough choices ahead: The smaller-than-expected budget increases come even as Congress and the White House tout plans to pass a competitiveness package that its backers insist will transform America’s R&D ecosystem. In a White House event on Wednesday to build support for that effort, Biden said the package “invests in R&D the way we need” for the U.S. to lead in artificial intelligence, biotechnology and telecommunications.
But neither the Senate’s version of the package, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (S. 1260), nor the House’s version, the America COMPETES Act (H.R. 4521),actually appropriate more money for science agencies, including NSF. They do, however, require NSF to create a new applied technology directorate — and Hourihan suggested the omnibus bill’s lackluster budget increase for NSF may cause the agency to cut funding for other priorities in order to ensure that directorate is properly resourced.
michelle czar has been hired as a program director at digital agency WillowTree. … Kaili Lambe is the new partnerships and policy director at Accountable Tech. … Jennifer Chronis has joined VMwareas vice president for the public sector including federal, state and education.
In Putin’s Russia, YouTube watches you: Russian visitors to YouTube are still being met with a flood of Kremlin-backed propaganda and disinformation against Ukraine, Grid reports.
Not so silly anymore: The Wall Street Journal reports that TikTok, once the province of lip-syncing videos and viral dance moves, is struggling to adjust to a flood of war videos emerging from the conflict in Ukraine.
ICYMI: Emily reports on a bipartisan group of House Judiciary Committee members who’ve told the Department of Justice that Amazon may have criminally obstructed Congress.
Crowded airwaves: Reps. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) and Bob Latta (R-Ohio) pen a joint op-ed arguing the recent kerfuffle in the aviation industry over 5G highlights the need for spectrum reform.
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