With help from John Hendel
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— Groundhog Day: The Senate Commerce Committee will once again try to advance two nominees whose confirmations would round out Democratic majorities at the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission.
— Back to TikTok: After a period of relative quiet, the Chinese-owned video sharing app is facing renewed scrutiny from Congress and state attorneys general.
— What goes around: The U.S. effort to cut Russia off from advanced microchips raises an uncomfortable question — could China one day do the same to the U.S.?
IT’S THURSDAY, MARCH 3. Welcome to Morning Tech! There are two kinds of people in this world — those who cry when the German government seizes their 512-foot superyachtand those who are happy to have had a 512-foot superyacht in the first place. Be the latter, folks.
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LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN: This morning, the Senate Commerce Committee is scheduled to vote on progressive favorites Gigi Sohn and Alvaro Bedoya to complete Democratic majorities at the FCC and FTC. The committee was supposed to have done so a month ago, but the votes were canceled. This time, things are looking more promising.
— GOP likely to show: Despite prior threats and speculation (and even some recent examples), Republicans are not expected to boycott the markup, a Senate aide familiar with their plans told John on Wednesday. In an evenly split committee and Senate, a unanimous GOP boycott would rob Democrats of the quorum necessary to hold a vote and proceed with the nominations. But as long as they can hold a vote, even if they deadlock along partisan lines, Democrats can still vote to force the nomination to the floor.
Senate Commerce ranking member Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) downplayed a boycott scenario again on Wednesday, echoing what he told John last month. “There’s been no discussion about that,” he told reporters on Wednesday.
— Partisan tensions are still simmering: Republican legislators and representatives from the telecom and media industries have sought to throw up roadblocks against Sohn and Bedoya’s nominations — stymying progressive ambitions around net neutrality, privacy and antitrust, which will require a full complement of Democrats at each agency to push through. A party-line, 14-14 vote on both nominees is looking increasingly likely — although some senators, including Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.), still haven’t said how they’ll vote.
— Chamber takes aim at Sohn: Industry groups remain spooked by both nominees, but especially Sohn. In a new letter from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which represents plenty of telecom heavyweights, the group notes that it has supported past Democratic FCC nominees, including Rosenworcel, but warns against Sohn’s “extreme” views.
Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a Sohn supporter, scoffed at the Chamber’s suggestion that Sohn’s presence at the FCC could make it difficult for Democrats to achieve “consensus” on issues such as broadband regulation and intellectual property protections.
“Saying you support the Chair but not the critical vote that enables the Chair’s agenda is pretty much counting on Hill staff to be complete morons,” Falcon tweeted.
TIKTOK BACK IN THE HOT SEAT: A long lull in regulatory and enforcement action targeting popular video-sharing app TikTok has ended, with Congress and state attorneys general simultaneously targeting the Chinese-owned company over concerns about national security and children’s online safety.
The new moves come as lawmakers in both parties, urged on by President Joe Biden, consider bills to protect children’s mental health and update internet privacy protections for minors.
— State AGs launch privacy probe: A coalition of state attorneys general, from blue and red states alike, announced an investigation Wednesday into whether TikTok is promoting its product to children and young adults despite being aware of the alleged risks it poses to their physical and mental health. That’s something the AGs say could violate state consumer protection laws.
“We don’t know what social media companies knew about these harms and when,” said California attorney general Rob Bonta, who joins AGs from Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Nebraska, New Jersey, Tennessee and Vermont. The probe will in part examine techniques used by TikTok to increase engagement among young users, including any efforts by the company to increase time spent on the platforms. (Read more on the investigation from Susannah Luthi for Pros.)
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton launched a separate probe into TikTok last month, alleging that the platform “may be complicit in child exploitation, sex trafficking, human trafficking, drug smuggling and other unimaginable horrors.”
A TikTok spokesperson said the company “looks forward to providing information on the many safety and privacy protections we have for teens.”
— Escalation: A fresh cycle of tech scrutiny began last fall, when Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen leaked reams of internal documents suggesting the mental health of some children is harmed by social media use. TikTok is owned by Beijing-based ByteDance and has no affiliation with Facebook parent company Meta — a sign that concerns about children’s online safety have spread far beyond any one company.
Bipartisan legislation is also percolating. The Kids Online Safety Act (S. 3663), sponsored by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), is designed to address many of the concerns raised by Haugen.
— Resurgence of China concerns: After a period of relative inaction, Congress is once again working once to impose restrictions on TikTok for its alleged ties to Chinese espionage activities, which the company has denied. On Wednesday the House Homeland Security Committee advanced via voice vote H.R. 6837, which would ban employees or contract workers at the Department of Homeland Security from downloading the TikTok app on work-related devices. Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the committee’s ranking member, called it “a common-sense bill that mitigates the risk posed by Chinese technology.”
A TikTok spokesperson did not respond when asked about the concerns raised by lawmakers on Wednesday about the app’s security, or whether the company expects to be the target of additional legislative or regulatory action.
AS CHIP SANCTIONS SPREAD, COULD THE U.S BE NEXT? The aggressive new sanctions imposed against Russia by the U.S. and its allies aim to choke off the country’s supply of virtually all advanced microchips, highlighting the technology’s role as a vital component of the modern digital economy.
But could China pull off a similar feat in a future confrontation with the U.S. and its allies, ultimately starving the democratic world of crucial supplies of advanced chips? Terry Daly, a senior fellow at the Fletcher School’s Council on Emerging Market Enterprises and former longtime executive at chipmakers GlobalFoundries and IBM, says the answer is likely yes — and not just because of China’s proximity to (and antipathy toward) the world’s primary source for advanced chips.
— The Taiwan problem: More than 90 percent of the world’s leading-edge microchips come from Taiwan, a democratic country Beijing claims as Chinese territory. In the event of a confrontation with the U.S. and its allies over Taiwan, China could conceivably move to capture or destroy facilities operated by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Corp., the company that manufactures the vast majority of the island’s (and therefore the world’s) advanced chips. The Chinese could also blockade the island and hold the chips ransom until Taiwan and its allies acquiesce to Beijing’s demands.
“It would be devastating,” said Daly, explaining that key inputs for virtually all consumer electronics, emerging national security and artificial intelligence capabilities, and “the entire guts of the network infrastructure for communications” would be cut off overnight.
— Non-nuclear options: The united front presented by the democratic world to the Russian invasion of Ukraine suggests a Chinese attack or blockade of Taiwan could be met with a swift response. But Daly said there are other options for China to choke off the democratic world’s chip supplies — nearly 40 percent of chip assembly and testing occurs within mainland China, along with more than 80 percent of rare earth extraction and refining (rare earths are crucial inputs in the creation of advanced microchips).
— Don’t panic yet: Matt Sheehan, a technology researcher focused on China at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said any effort by China to deny the U.S. and its allies access to advanced chips would very likely cripple the Chinese economy as well. Sheehan also said companies with facilities elsewhere, like Samsung and Intel, could eventually pick up the slack if Taiwanese chips are blocked.
But both Sheehan and Daly said there’s no question the current push to onshore chip manufacturing — a key feature of Biden’s speech on Tuesday — is in part to ensure China can’t strangle the democratic world’s access to cutting-edge chips should the worst come to pass.
Abeba Birhane, Apryl Williams, Amber Sinha, Bogdana Rakova, Lori Regattieri, Neema Iyer and Brandi Geurkink are all new senior fellows in AI at Mozilla. … Andy Hickl is the new global capability lead in AI at Accenture. … Jonathan Adelstein is the new managing director and head of global policy and public investment at DigitalBridge Group. … Michael Kennedy has been promoted to a senior vice president, global government relations and public policy at VMWare.
Squeezed by Kyiv: The Washington Post profiles Mykhailo Fedorov, a Ukrainian official who’s successfully pressuring Silicon Valley into backing Ukraine in its fight with Russia.
Know your investor? The cryptocurrency industry is built in part on anonymity — and that’s a problem when it comes to certain investors, the New York Times reports.
Telegram goes to war: Wired reports the Ukrainian government has leaned heavily on encrypted messaging app Telegram to get information about the fighting out to its citizens.
ICYMI: Wicker may be switching committee assignments next year to lead Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A common argument: A report from the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute argues against regulating social media companies as common carriers.
That one time at Bandcamp: Video game company Epic Games is acquiring online music store Bandcamp for an undisclosed sum.
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