With help from Cristiano Lima, John Hendel and Leah Nylen
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— Looking at Lander: Eric Lander, President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the White House tech office, will have to answer for multiple controversies during his nomination hearing today.
— E-commerce mobilizes: There’s a lobbying battle brewing between brick-and-mortar retailers and online marketplaces like Amazon over the bipartisan INFORM Consumers Act, S. 936 (117).
— Q&A with Protonmail’s CEO: Andy Yen says he believes the fight over the Apple App Store is really about freedom of expression.
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TECH QUOTE OF THE DAY: Biden emphasized the need to invest in the “technologies of the future” during his speech to Congress Wednesday night, naming advanced batteries, biotechnology, computer chips and clean energy as areas the U.S. should focus on.
And he indicated that Vice President Kamala Harris will be helping to spearhead the broadband-related parts of his infrastructure plan. (Harris has talked about broadband multiple times over the last week, including during a stop in New Hampshire, and co-sponsored key broadband legislation during her time in the Senate.)
BRACING FOR FIREWORKS AT OSTP NOMINATION HEARING — The nomination hearing for Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy this morning could turn feisty. Senate aides, who requested anonymity to discuss the proceedings, said they expect senators on the Commerce Committee to raise concerns about his treatment of female scientists and his past meetings with the late financier and sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, which have already delayed deliberations.
— Epstein connection under fire: Lander, a renowned geneticist and the director of the Broad Institute of M.I.T. and Harvard, is facing fresh questions about his 2012 meetings with Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking in 2019 before his apparent suicide. Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) “wanted more clarity on the extent of Lander’s associations with Epstein,” POLITICO reported last week, and Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) has also expressed reservations, according to another aide. (Lander told BuzzFeed he “later learned” about Epstein’s “sordid history” and that they didn’t have a relationship.)
— A fraught record with women: Lander’s also been accused of minimizing the role female scientists played in the development of breakthrough gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. Sen. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.) “is concerned about Eric Lander’s efforts to downplay the work of two Nobel prize-winning female scientists on CRISPR, and plans to raise the issue during his confirmation hearing,” spokesperson Abegail Cave told MT, and a memo prepared by GOP committee staff obtained by MT said Lander’s behavior “at most has been construed as sexist.” The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment on the matter.
— Milestones hit and milestones missed: If confirmed, Lander would be the first-ever OSTP director to serve at the Cabinet level, after Biden announced plans to elevate the position as a nod to the importance of science and technological innovation in his administration. But the pick has been a big disappointment for those clamoring for Biden to tap a woman and/or a person of color as the nation’s top scientist — demographics that have been traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields. That idea, as Cristiano reported in January, had a slew of allies on Capitol Hill.
— Republicans may also question Lander’s work on genetic correction using embryos created through in-vitro fertilization. The GOP staff memo prepared for the hearing notes that Lander “has not articulated a clear position on what should be done with the embryos that are not transferred, although their consequent destruction is implied by the process.”
INFORMING THE PUBLIC: Online marketplaces, including Amazon, are cranking up their lobbying efforts against bipartisan legislation that would require e-commerce sites to put more effort into verifying the identities of top sellers on their platforms. The bill, which would also force marketplaces to disclose basic information about third-party sellers, has already prompted the creation of two (!) industry coalitions to oppose it.
“This legislation favors large brick-and-mortar retailers, at the expense of small businesses that sell online, while doing nothing to prevent fraud and abuse or hold bad actors accountable,” Amazon’s top lobbyist, Brian Huseman, wrote in a rare company blog post on Wednesday.
— Coincidence? Just this week, a new coalition cropped up to push back on the legislation, Caitlin Oprysko writes in POLITICO Influence. The Makers and Merchants Coalition, which receives money from the Internet Association (a group that counts Amazon as a member), is making many of the same arguments as Amazon itself: that the INFORM Consumers Act on would undermine online sellers’ privacy and create hurdles for small businesses.
There are already two other coalitions devoted to lobbying on the bill: The Buy Safe America Coalition, which includes retailers like Home Depot, CVS and Walgreens, has been aggressively advocating in favor of it, and the Coalition to Protect America’s Small Sellers (PASS Coalition), which includes smaller online marketplaces like eBay and Poshmark, has been advocating for reforms to the legislation.
— Between the lines: This is an unusual amount of money, effort and attention for these companies to devote to one piece of legislation, which signals they believe it’s a genuine threat. The bill, which was reintroduced last month, has picked up heavyweight co-sponsors like Biden ally Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
“It is hard to understand why Amazon would oppose [the bill’s] basic transparency measures,” said a spokesperson for Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the original co-sponsor of the bill. “Consumers know who brick and mortar retailers are and how to find them; the same basic transparency should apply to high-volume online sellers.”
WHY DEMOCRACIES NEED ANTITRUST — You probably wouldn’t think the CEO of encrypted email service Protonmail and ProtonVPN, the world’s largest free VPN service, has a lot in common with Republican firebrand Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio. But both believe the recent de- and replatforming of social network Parler is a serious problem. “These tech companies are essentially controlling the public square, which is necessary for discourse,” Yen told Leah. “That’s undermining the foundations of democracy.”
— Protonmail and ProtonVPN have 50 million users worldwide, many in countries where human right violations or internet censorship are common, Yen said. (Malaysia and Hong Kong are two big user bases.) The company has tussled with Apple, both over the 30 percent commissions it charges to app developers and because the iPhone-maker has forced ProtonVPN to remove claims that its app can be used to bypass government firewalls, Yen said.
— Competition: The problem today is that tech companies like Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple make the rules about what can be said online, Yen said, rather than elected authorities. And he said the situation is made worse by the lack of competition. “If you have a world where there’s not just two players, but 10 or 20 or 30 players in the space, and there’s open competition and a competitive market, you don’t really need to regulate,” he said. “Today, Apple and Google don’t face competitive pressure. They can do whatever they want.”
DOMESTIC ABUSE PHONE PLAN FIX FALTERS — Although the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday unanimously advanced the Safe Connections Act, S. 120 (117), Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) cautioned that the proposal isn’t ready for a floor vote. The bipartisan bill would require phone companies to take certain steps to allow victims of domestic abuse to get out of phone plans with their abusers, including through an FCC rulemaking.
— “We still do have a few outstanding pieces of feedback to address in the bill’s text,” Fischer said. She didn’t specify just what needs to be ironed out in her view, and her office declined to elaborate.
— Lead sponsor Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), too, noted this was “the beginning of a journey” and that committee staff worked “hard into the night” ahead of the markup. But he remains extremely bullish on the bill’s prospects for enactment.
AND ICYMI: Seven members of the Congressional Black Caucus, led by Chair Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), endorsed veteran telecom lawyer Edward “Smitty” Smith for the role of FCC chair in a private letter to Biden this month, John reports for Pros.
Intel, Snap Inc., Dell Technologies and Nasdaq are forming a new industry coalition, Alliance for Global Inclusion, to develop shared diversity and inclusion metrics. … Jennifer Chronis, former Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, has been named as the senior vice president of Verizon Public Sector. … The FCC chose Ernst & Young as the fund administrator for the $1.9 billion Trusted Communications Networks Reimbursement Program.
Spotify soldiers on: Spotify is refusing to comment on anti-vaccine remarks from Joe Rogan, its most popular podcast host, but the company did flaunt his success during its earnings call this week, The Hill reports.
Oh my, JEDI: “A federal judge on Wednesday denied the government’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit from Amazon Web Services alleging former President Donald Trump improperly interfered in a $10 billion Pentagon cloud computing contract.” More from your host for Pros.
Oy vey: Oracle’s top lobbyist Ken Glueck earned the dreaded title of “main character” on Twitter yesterday after he was suspended over a tweet in which he published the personal information of an investigative reporter for The Intercept. More on the saga from Motherboard.
Setting the agenda: Acting FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel will focus on prison calling and robocalls at the commission’s upcoming May meeting.
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