Programming Note: We’ll be off this Monday for Presidents Day but will be back in your inboxes on Tuesday, Feb. 22.
With help from John Hendel and Leah Nylen
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— Bye, ‘Buy America’? Alan Davidson, the Biden administration’s lead on broadband, on Wednesday left the door open to waiving some of the infrastructure law’s “Buy America” provisions for telecom equipment.
— Two for one: President Joe Biden temporarily appointed Alondra Nelson and Francis Collins to replace Eric Lander, the former head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
— Brave new (antitrust) world: White House competition adviser Tim Wu touts the Biden administration’s new “small is beautiful” approach to the tech industry.
IT’S THURSDAY, FEB. 17. Welcome to Morning Tech! I hope everyone’s been enjoying the extra daylight — having sun for a bit after 5 p.m. shouldn’t feel like a luxury, but here we are.
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NTIA CHIEF OPEN TO BROADBAND ‘BUY AMERICA’ WAIVERS — The coming surge of broadband spending fueled by the infrastructure law is already creating headaches for the Commerce Department — particularly around the law’s Buy America provisions.
The issue put Davidson in a tough position at his first oversight hearing. Lawmakers on a House Energy and Commerce subpanel, responding to arguments made by the telecom industry, asked Davidson whether the administration will seek to waive the law’s Buy America requirements when it comes to communications equipment, or if it plans to water down a prohibition on purchasing fiber optic cable and optical transmission equipment built in China.
“There has to be a high bar, and we have to be very smart and very tailored about any waivers that we give,” Davidson told Congress.
— That’s not a ‘no’: The administration can grant waivers to the Buy American requirement, albeit through a complex process coordinated by the OMB. According to the Congressional Research Service, the infrastructure bill requires that “manufactured goods must contain greater than 55% domestic content and be manufactured in the United States” to count as “American” for the purposes of Buy America rules.
But a lot of top-tier broadband equipment is now made by companies based abroad, like Nordic-based firms Ericsson and Nokia. (Chinese companies like Huawei were already largely off the table for U.S providers.) And the U.S. telecom industry argues there simply aren’t enough U.S.-based options to turn to for the equipment they need to build out broadband in a big way.
A letter sent earlier this month to the Biden administration from industry group USTelecom and a handful of other telecom lobbyists warned the coming demand for new broadband projects driven by the infrastructure law “cannot be met by the U.S. electronics production ecosystem alone at present, nor is it possible for U.S. manufacturers to upend existing worldwide networks of suppliers, many of which are located in areas of U.S. allies and trading partners.”
— Hill wants answers: Rep. John Joyce (R-Pa.) asked whether Davidson will seek such a waiver as it relates to broadband funding. And Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) separately said he’s “extremely concerned” that the law’s ban on using Chinese fiber optic cable could be waived to avoid the prospect of incurring “unreasonable” costs.
— Davidson threads the needle: “There’s a clear reason we have those Buy America provisions,” Davidson told lawmakers, “which is that we want the vast majority of these monies to be spent with American companies, on American workers, we want to promote the workforce, we want to create jobs.”
But Davidson also noted “real challenges in the telecommunications sector,” saying he’d heard a lot about the industry’s concerns in recent weeks. “We’re trying to understand those better,” he said, conceding the telecom industry faces “unique issues” when it came to sourcing American-made products.
NELSON TO RUN OSTP, COLLINS TAPPED FOR PCAST: President Joe Biden announced two temporary appointments late on Wednesday to replace Eric Lander, the former head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Lander resigned last week after POLITICO reported that an internal investigation found he’d bullied subordinates.
— Promoted from within: Nelson, now the deputy director for science and society at OSTP, will “perform the duties of director” of the full agency, according to a White House press release. Nelson’s current position is the first at OSTP to focus on the societal impacts of emerging technologies and diversity in the tech and science sectors, and the White House said her appointment will “ensure that all Americans have equitable access to the benefits of new and emerging technologies and scientific innovation.” (Regular MT readers will note Nelson led the pack in a list of Lander replacements we put together last week).
— Just when I thought I was out: Collins, a longtime former head of the National Institutes of Health who just stepped down last December, is being pulled back in to temporarily serve as co-chair of PCAST and as White House science adviser. Despite Lander’s resignation, Biden remains focused on his Cancer Moonshot 2.0 — Wednesday’s release specifically mentions the program — and Collins’ health policy background makes him well-suited to helm the effort.
— How temporary are they, really? The White House said both Nelson and Collins are being elevated to their respective positions “until permanent leadership is nominated and confirmed.” But these things have a way of dragging out for months. And the Biden administration has been especially slow, even by Washington standards, to nominate officials — to say nothing of Congress, where Republicans have increasingly found success in slow-walking Biden’s nominees.
NEC’S WU ON BIDEN’S ‘NEW DIRECTION’ ON ANTITRUST — Wu said the Biden administration has adopted a different perspective on how to promote innovation — while previous White Houses might’ve said “trust the giants,” this one believes “small is beautiful.”
Wu, a member of Biden’s National Economic Council, spoke Wednesday at an event hosted by the Open Markets Institute, where he pushed back on what he termed the “monopoly innovation” theory that he says has dominated antitrust thinking for several decades. According to that view, he said, the high prices a monopoly can charge encourages it to innovate and develop new technologies.
But monopolies’ track record of innovation isn’t great, Wu said, citing AT&T’s efforts to kill off radio and satellite technologies that competed with its analog phone system. “A monopolist has less inherent reason to want to change how things are. It may not want to innovate in ways that challenge its main revenue and profit streams,” Wu said.
— Progressive pivot: The Biden administration is instead focusing on what Wu termed “competitive innovation,” which uses antitrust action to ensure the big firms don’t buy out potential rivals or unfairly undercut competitors. “Putting pressure on the giants creates room for more innovation,” he said.
ICYMI: Leah explored these same ideas in a December piece on Washington’s fast-evolving views around antitrust policy, which continue to divide policymakers — often in unexpected ways).
CLEGG PROMOTED AT FACEBOOK: In a move widely viewed as an attempt by Meta CEO Mark Zuckberg to get politicians off his back, on Wednesday the company formerly known as Facebook announced that Nick Clegg, a former leader of the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats, will now be president of global affairs at Meta.
— Memory lane: Clegg was hired in 2018 to serve as Facebook’s “smooth new political fixer,” but things didn’t exactly pan out that way. Wednesday’s announcement looks like an attempt by Meta to reset the narrative and put the savvy British pol back to work buttering up policymakers around the world.
Mark Lipperta former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, is the new executive vice president and head of North America public affairs at Samsung Electronics America. … Josh Withrow is joining the R Street Institute as a fellow on their technology and innovation policy team. He previously was director of technology policy at the National Taxpayers Union and is a FreedomWorks alum. … Christopher Grieco is now general counsel at Fei Labs, a crypto startup backed by a16z and Coinbase Ventures. He was associate deputy attorney general in the Trump administration and is a former federal prosecutor.
Meta hardest hit: The Wall Street Journal reports Google is poised to follow Apple’s lead and curtail cross-app tracking on its Android smartphones (Apple’s move alone helped slash Meta’s market value by $300 billion).
Shocked face: Facial recognition company Clearview.AI is telling investors it will have 100 billion photos of faces in its database within a year, according to The Washington Post.
Desperate times: The Canadian government is ordering cryptocurrency exchanges to blacklist “freedom convoy” addresses in an effort to shut off funds to the vaccine mandate protests, Vice’s Motherboard reports.
Bailing early: FAA Administrator Steve Disckson is resigning, as his agency continues to grapple with how to make air travel safe amid a 5G rollout, our Oriana Pawlyk writes.
Gee, don’t sugarcoat it: Cryptocurrency is a “venereal disease,” according to 98-year-old Berkshire Hathaway executive Charlie Munger (Reuters with the report).
I’d rather not know: A new feature from ridesharing app Uber lets you see every passenger ranking you’ve ever received from a driver, The Washington Post reports.Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Heidi Vogt ([email protected]), Konstantin Kakaes[email protected]), Emily Birnbaum ([email protected]), Brendan Bordelon ([email protected]), John Hendel ([email protected]), Rebecca Kern ([email protected]) and Leah Nylen ([email protected]). Got an event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. And don’t forget: Add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.