With help from Alexandra S. Levine, Leah Nylen and John Hendel
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— The wait goes on and on: Speculation is escalating over President Joe Biden’s long-awaited selection of a permanent FCC chair, as the agency holds its seventh open meeting with an acting chair today.
— Bye-bye, Aristotle: The FTC has removed Aristotle from its list of approved firms that help tech companies comply with children’s online privacy rules.
— New CSAM report: An industry-funded report says tech companies have been doubling down on efforts to remove material depicting child sexual abuse amid legislative threats.
IT’S THURSDAY, AUG. 5, AND YOU’RE ALMOST THERE. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH. This is my last day handling Morning Tech while Ben Din is out. But please reach out to me at [email protected] or Twitter, @birnbaum_e, about stories you think should be told on the tech lobbying and influence beat.
IT’S AUGUST. WHERE’S BIDEN’S FCC CHAIR? — Today’s monthly FCC meeting will be the seventh Jessica Rosenworcel will chair with “acting” in front of her title — and left-leaning telecom industry observers are growing increasingly anxious about the White House’s lack of a permanent choice.
— Speculation has run rampant about potential contenders, from former Obama-era FCC staffer Gigi Sohn to Free Press co-CEO Jessica González to sitting commissioners, like Democrat Geoffrey Starks.
Rosenworcel, of course, has her own deep well of support. She stood alongside Biden last month as he signed his executive order on promoting competition. And if Biden does choose her, she could assume that role immediately, although she would still need Senate confirmation this year.
— Timing crunch: The normally five-member FCC has been short a commissioner since January, and the resulting 2-2 deadlock has stalled Democratic agenda items like restoring net neutrality. And Rosenworcel’s regular term as commissioner will expire at year’s end unless the Senate reconfirms her.
The Senate will have an especially tight calendar from September through December to sign off on nominations for both FCC chair and commissioner. If the White House and Senate do nothing, Republicans will have a 2-1 FCC majority come January, with Starks becoming both sole Democrat and acting chair.
“The timing would argue for a decision sooner rather than later,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently told John. “I’m very concerned about the Democratic majority, so I think there is an urgency about the decision.” Blumenthal has been “hearing a number of different names” but believes “Rosenworcel is really head-and-shoulders above the others,” he added.
— It’s been 44 years since a new president has taken this long to name his FCC head. (President Jimmy Carter didn’t name his nominee for the post, Charles Ferris, until mid-September of his first year in office.)
TODAY: FCC TO DESIGNATE BOSTON, RALEIGH AS 5G ‘INNOVATION ZONES’ — FCC commissioners will vote today on making two cities test sites for exploring how best to build out 5G wireless networks in the U.S. These “innovation zones” — in Boston and in Raleigh, N.C. — will also let the FCC look at ways to foster so-called open RAN technologies, which would open the radio access network protocols and allow a wider mix of companies to provide 5G service. (This would also challenge the Chinese companies that tend to supply a lot of 5G hardware, like Huawei.)
— The “innovation zone” program is a culmination of ideas that Rosenworcel has floated since late 2019 and has been the subject of bipartisan interest among FCC members.
ARISTOTLE OUT OVER COPPA FLAP — The FTC’s decision to cut ties with Aristotle marks the first time the agency has ever revoked a certification related to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.
— Not the philosopher: Aristotle primarily offers technology used by campaigns, political action committees and other organizations, but also has identity and age verification tools. In 2012, the FTC approved Aristotle as a self-regulatory organization to police compliance with COPPA, a 1998 law that requires companies to obtain parental consent before collecting kids’ data online. Six other organizations are also approved by the FTC to help companies comply with the law.
In a statement Wednesday, Samuel Levine, the FTC’s top consumer protection staffer, criticized Aristotle, calling it “a clear conflict of interest when self-regulatory organizations are funded by the website operators and app developers they are supposed to police.” Aristotle disputes this characterization and says it gets most of its money from the technology it sells to campaigns, PACs and the like.
Aristotle CEO John Phillips told MT that the company had only two or three clients using its COPPA service in recent years. “With the small number of clients, and other parts of the company growing, we decided to wind down our COPPA program in June of this year,” he said. “At no time did we intentionally or disrespectfully not follow the COPPA standards.”
Phillips also pushed back on Levine’s accusations of a conflict of interest, saying they would be more appropriately addressed to others in the FTC’s program. (Another organization certified for COPPA, for example — the Entertainment Software Rating Board, which assigns age and content ratings to video games — has faced similar criticism over its ties to the video game industry.)
TECH COALITION SAYS COMPANIES STEPPING UP ON CHILD ABUSE: Social media platforms are reporting more child sexual abuse material than ever before, according to a industry report released today. The Technology Coalition, which counts Google, Facebook, Twitter and other major companies as members, released its first report since it offered up a five-pronged plan to combat the online spread of child pornography last year.
Members of the coalition increased reports to the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by 29 percent from 2019 to 2020, according to the report. And 98 percent of the center’s reports came from members of the coalition.
— Why now? The report comes over a year since the Justice Department and Congress threatened to narrow the tech industry’s legal liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, to punish the companies for hosting child sexual abuse material. The coalition insisted that it could tackle the issue without government intervention. “We are hoping for more action, not just words and promises,” a DOJ official told CNBC at the time.
Now the companies say they are working closely together to detect images and videos shared across their platforms. They also say they’re investing millions of dollars in partnerships and research to address the issue, according to the report.
— Welcoming new members: The Technology Coalition also has two new members: Clubhouse, the audio-first social media app that exploded in popularity during the pandemic, and Outschool, an online education platform.
STATE AG ANTITRUST BILL TEED UP — Legislation to let state attorneys general pick the location for their antitrust suits is set to be marked up today in the Senate Judiciary Committee. But panel aides say the bill, S. 1787 (117), may end up being held.
Although the bipartisan legislation has support from Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah), the chair and ranking member of the antitrust subcommittee, any member of the Judiciary panel can ask for a one-week delay on a bill. The bill’s House version, H.R. 3460 (117), has drawn opposition from several lawmakers in the California delegation — and both of California’s Democratic senators are Senate Judiciary members. A spokesperson for Sen. Dianne Feinstein declined to comment on whether she has concerns about the bill, while Sen. Alex Padilla’s office didn’t respond to questions about his views.
SPEAKING OF ANTITRUST JURISDICTION — State attorneys general amended their suit against Google late Wednesday, eliminating a request for federal antitrust damages. The tweak removes potential duplication with private antitrust suits filed in California that seek damages from the search giant for monopolizing the advertising technology market. The states hope the change may alleviate concerns a judge expressed at a hearing last week about overlaps between the AGs’ suit and private cases.
MEANWHILE: TECH AMENDMENTS FLOW IN ON INFRASTRUCTURE — Even as the Senate prepares to pass its massive bipartisan infrastructure deal later this week, senators are still debating tech-related amendments:
— By a 43-55 vote Wednesday, a bipartisan coalition of senators defeated an amendment from Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to impose Administrative Procedure Act requirements on the roughly $42 billion in broadband grants flowing from the deal. Deal negotiator Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) contended that such requirements would create “burdensome” bureaucracy.
— In a 95-1 vote Monday, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) succeeded in slipping in provisions aimed at bolstering the 5G workforce.
— And a bipartisan group of lawmakers is scrambling to narrow the bill’s cryptocurrency tax reporting provisions, POLITICIAN’s Kellie Mejdrich and Victoria Guide report.
MOZILLA JOINS FACEBOOK PILE-ON OVER NYU REVELATIONS: — Mozilla has joined the chorus of lawmakers, free speech groups and academics blasting Facebook for suspending a team of NYU researchers who had been studying political ads and disinformation on the social network. Mozilla on Wednesday called Facebook’s moves to limit publicly available data and restrict researchers “a troubling pattern” and said the platform’s arguments that it took action to protect user privacy “simply do not hold water.”
Dylan Loewe, Biden’s former speechwriter, will be Apple’s director of public relations and CEO Tim Cook’s speechwriter. … Carolyn Everson, formerly Facebook’s ad chief, will be the president of Instacart. … Phoebe Benich, former analyst on the staffs of the Defense Innovation Board and Cyberspace Solarium Commission, joined In-Q-Tel as a program manager. … Velocity Global hired Eric Schroeder as chief operating officer. … Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten Group is acquiring U.S.-based mobile technology company Altiostar Networks. … Biden nominated Kathy Im, Tom Rothman and Elizabeth Seem to the board of directors of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Workplace issues: Google fired dozens of employees between 2018 and 2020 for abusing their access to the company’s tools or data, Motherboard reports.
Amazon weighs vaccine mandate: The e-commerce giant is considering whether to require Covid-19 vaccinations, despite skepticism from its workforce, according to Bloomberg.
Back off: Democratic lawmakers led by Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren sent a letter urging Facebook and Amazon to stop campaigning for FTC Chair Lina Khan’s recusal from antitrust matters related to their businesses.
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