With help from John Hendel, Leah Nylen and Rebecca Kern
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— Russian disinfo surges:On the eve of a possible invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. and Europe are struggling to keep up with a Kremlin-induced tidal wave of disinformation.
— State by state:The Senate will soon mark up its federal app store bill. But Illinois, Minnesota and Arizona each have their own app store legislation to watch.
— Business blackout:A U.S. International Trade Commission report accuses six major nations of using digital censorship to shut out U.S. companies, and it could spur Congress to action.
IT’S FRIDAY, JAN. 28. Welcome to Morning Tech! I’m Brendan Bordelon, your permanent new MT host. Many thanks to my new colleagues for filling in over the last couple months, and an extra-special thank you to Emily Birnbaum for patiently showing me the ropes this week!
A little bit about me — I’ve spent nearly five years covering tech policy at National Journal, where I specialized in emerging technologies, transatlantic tech relations, U.S. R&D policy and the tech competition between Washington and Beijing. But that’s the boring stuff — I’m also a husband, dog dad and long-time D.C. dweller who enjoys hiking, biking and gossiping about weird going-ons in Washington. So send me all your tea (and coffee — feels like I’ve gone through an entire IV bag of the stuff this week)!
Ping me on Twitter with MT tips @BrendanBordelon or by email at [email protected] Got an event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. Anything else? Team info below. And don’t forget: Add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE AND DISINFORMATION: No one knows what’s going to happen in Eastern Europe. But one thing is clear: The Kremlin’s disinformation apparatus is out in full force. We’ve got state-backed media claiming NATO is planning chemical weapons attacks on Russian troops. We’ve got accusations that European capitals — not Moscow — are moving more and more troops closer to the Ukrainian border. We’ve got right-wing influencers in the U.S. and Europe (with no affiliation to Russia) mimicking talking points from Russian state-backed media outlets like RT and Sputnik.
“There’s an alignment of interests between the U.S. far right and the Russian government,” said Bret Schafer, head of the information manipulation team at the German Marshall Fund‘s Alliance for Securing Democracy.
— Flooding the zone: Our friends on POLITICO’s tech team in Europe spent more than a week talking to national security officials and disinformation experts, as well as scraping through hundreds of Russian state-backed media articles and their footprints on social media. The Kremlin clearly wants the outside world to believe Vladimir Putin is the peacemaker in all of this, and that it is the leaders in Washington and Brussels who are stoking war. That message has been spread to millions of people via these outlets’ massive social media followings. Washington and Brussels’ collective responses (see here for Washington’s andhere for Brussels’) have barely made a tenth of that impact.
Many of these anti-Ukraine/anti-Western narratives have been kicking around since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. What’s different now is the breadth of coverage (in both Russian-backed media and their unofficial affiliates in the U.S. and Europe) and how coordinated it is. A French-language article is quickly picked up in French, English and Spanish. Multiple social media accounts (both official and so-called sock-puppet accounts) repeat the same messages over and over again. It’s a full-court press — and so far, the U.S. and Europe don’t appear to have an adequate game plan to respond.
Read more from Mark Scott, our friend from across the Atlantic.
STATES MOVE FIRST — The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to mark up the Open App Markets Act, S. 2710 (117), next week, spurring a new burst of lobbying by the bill’s supporters. But the real action on app store bills is still in the states, where several legislatures are poised to move bills aimed at paring back Apple and Google’s holds over their respective app ecosystems this year.
Here are the states to watch, according to lobbyists and advocates:
— Illinois: Democratic Illinois state legislators in both chambers earlier this month introduced the Freedom to Subscribe Directly Act, legislation that would give app developers the legal right to do business directly with their customers rather than having to work through Apple and Google’s payment systems. State Sen. Sara Feigenholtz, a Democrat who represents Chicago, told MT she believes the legislation could help build out Illinois’ tech sector.
Illinois is an important state for app store regulation — it’s both the home state of Basecamp co-founder David Heinemeier-Hansson, one of the strongest advocates for state and federal legislation, and Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin, who is a co-sponsor of the federal app store bill. Feigenholtz told MT she is in communication with Durbin and his staff, and has a meeting set up to discuss the issue next week. “My sense would be that he would love to see Illinois move forward on this and possibly be the first state to have it,” Feigenholtz said. Durbin’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
— Minnesota: Minnesota House Commerce Committee Chair Zack Stephenson, a Democrat, is championing similar app store legislation alongside Republican Minnesota Sen. Mark Koran, chair of the Minnesota Senate technology and reform committee. Stephenson is a former staffer to Senate Judiciary Antitrust Chair Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), one of the lead co-sponsors of the federal app store bill, and has made it clear he hopes to prioritize his legislation this year. It was introduced last year and lawmakers are working on scheduling hearings, according to a person familiar with the planning who asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations.
— Arizona: Lawmakers in Arizona are expected to reintroduce their app store legislation in the next few weeks. The Arizona legislation, which gives apps a way to avoid the fees Apple and Google now charge, was the first app store bill to pass through a legislative body. But the legislation died in the state Senate, amid an intense lobbying campaign by Apple and Google. Republican Arizona Rep. Regina Cobb has since emerged as a national leader on the issue, however, and she’s gearing up to fight again.
— States vs. federal: The Open App Markets Act would preempt all of these state bills if it were to pass, leaving the bill’s supporters in a complex position as they support both state and federal efforts.
TRADE COMMISSION, CONGRESS TARGET FOREIGN CENSORSHIP — Congress may be stirring to action against overseas censorship regimes that block U.S. companies from competing within their borders. But there’s daylight between what the two chambers see as the best approach.
Senators reacted forcefully to an expansive report out Thursday from the USITC, which accused six countries — China, Russia, Turkey, Vietnam, India and Indonesia — of deploying pervasive digital censorship tools that act as de facto trade barriers for U.S. companies seeking to operate in those markets. The report said companies specializing in digital content could face particularly tough restrictions, including from non-governmental actors.
The types of economically-disruptive censorship include internet shutdowns (prevalent in China, India and Russia), blocking video games and video-streaming services and attempts to block or throttle mobile apps and social media sites.
— Senate Finance weighs in: The report, the first of two expected on foreign censorship, was commissioned on a bipartisan basis by lawmakers from the Senate Finance Committee. In a statement, committee chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) praised the commission’s effort and argued Washington needs to respond forcefully to foreign censorship regimes.
— Congress preps potential replies: Any eventual response to the trade barriers raised by digital censorship (in China or elsewhere) will need to be led by the U.S. Trade Representative, the Commerce Department and other federal agencies. But Wyden and Crapo want to prod those agencies into action, and are touting provisions they successfully inserted into the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act, S. 1260 (117), ahead of its Senate passage that would tighten the screws on repeat offenders.
Not so in the House’s new competitiveness package, which was introduced this week as companion legislation to USICA but which leaves out some of the Senate bill’s provisions, including Wyden’s anti-censorship push. In a statement to MT, the Finance Committee chair said he’s “concerned that the House bill leaves out key progressive priorities, including widely supported efforts to respond to China’s attacks on free speech and human rights online and efforts to more effectively combat forced labor in Xinjiang and elsewhere.”
SUICIDE HOTLINE’S DATA PRACTICES SPARK ETHICAL DEBATES — Crisis Text Line is among the world’s most prominent mental health support lines, a tech-driven nonprofit that uses big data and AI to help people cope with self-harm, emotional abuse and thoughts of suicide.
But the data the charity collects from its online text conversations with people doesn’t end there: The organization’s for-profit spinoff, a company called Loris.ai, uses a sliced and repackaged version of that information to create and market customer service software. Loris, in turn, has pledged to share some of its revenue with Crisis Text Line. (The nonprofit also holds an ownership stake in the company, and the two entities shared the same CEO for at least a year and a half.)
Alex explores the issue in detail in her latest for Pros.
PROSPECTS RISE FOR AN FCC COMPETITION PRIORITY — Brendan Carr, the senior GOP commissioner at the FCC, told reporters he welcomes what he’s seeing in the recent plan to expand internet connectivity choices for apartment dwellers from FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. President Joe Biden had asked the FCC to tackle this issue in his pro-competition executive order last year.
— Carr’s posture boosts the prospects for this plan, which some speculated was not positioned to move before the FCC obtained a Democratic majority. The commission is currently divided 2-2 between Democrats and Republicans (Biden’s tiebreaking nominee, Gigi Sohn, is on deck for a committee vote next week).
Carr, however, said the Rosenworcel draft strikes him as “pretty straightforward” and doesn’t offer “any real heartburn” so far. “I like competition. I like choice,” Carr told reporters Thursday. “I don’t see any real hurdles to getting it voted and getting it out the door.”
Rosenworcel, for her part, told reporters that while she wants to adopt the proposal “in short order,” she’s not rushing her colleagues.
Dell, Intel and the American Association of Community Colleges have launched the AI Incubator Network to design and build artificial intelligence incubators across the country.
Kustomer’s always right: European Union regulators approved Meta’s purchase of customer service startup Kustomer, POLITICO reports.
How it stacks up: Substack is making millions off of anti-vaccine content — and the company is defending its stance. The Washington Post has more.
Tiktok, Meta pull back ads: Meta and TikTok pulled advertisements promoting negative body image and misleading health information from a major mental health care startup, NBC News reports.
FTC finds fraud surge: Consumers in 2021 reported losing about $770 million to fraud initiated on social media, an 18-fold increase from 2017, the FTC said in a blog post.
Uh-oh, GAO: The Government Accountability Office says the National Telecommunications and Information Agency should improve its spectrum reallocation planning.
Eyes on AI: A bipartisan group of lawmakers is pressing the head of the National Science Foundation to use the National Artificial Intelligence Research Resource Task Force Act (enacted as part of last year’s defense policy bill) to support the agency’s ongoing work to ensure civil rights are protected in AI technologies.
ICYMI: Sohn has expanded her recusal pledges, John reports for Pros.
Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Heidi Vogt ([email protected]), Konstantin Kakaes ([email protected]), Brendan Bordelon ([email protected]), Emily Birnbaum ([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.