With help from John Hendel, Leah Nylen and Mark Scott
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— Nominee tracker: FCC nominee Gigi Sohn is not getting a committee vote next week, despite earlier signs she might make it onto a markup agenda.
— Taking on tech: Lawmakers in both chambers are holding hearings today to take on “Big Tech.” Some themes: boosting transparency and algorithmic accountability.
— Not quite fixed: Facebook’s ability to identify political ads is still sorely lacking, according to new research.
IT’S THURSDAY, DEC. 9. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Benjamin Din. What was your top takeaway from Wednesday’s Instagram hearing?
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NO COMMITTEE VOTE FOR SOHN NEXT WEEK — The Senate Commerce Committee will not be voting next Wednesday on Sohn’s nomination because some committee members asked for more time to meet with her, committee spokesperson Tricia Enright told John. That’s another ominous sign for her nomination, in the wake of fierce GOP criticism. And it seems to ensure that her possible confirmation — which is required to secure a Democratic majority at the FCC — won’t happen until 2022.
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) had held out hope as recently as Tuesday to include Sohn’s nomination on the committee’s agenda. “We want to move her, we’ve just got to figure out a few things,” Cantwell said at the time. Senate offices have been looking at whether Sohn would have to recuse herself over her past role on TV streaming nonprofit Locast, according to Cantwell. Sohn has pledged to abide by whatever ethics professionals deem necessary. (Meanwhile, the committee is scheduled to vote on Alan Davidson’s less contentious nomination to head the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.)
— On the bright side: Miguel Roggero, CEO of Latino-owned Fuse Media, is offering “full support” to the embattled nominee, according to a copy of a letter dated today and obtained by John. “Her commitment to diversity of ownership and viewpoints, along with her support for independent voices, will allow entertainment providers and companies of all sizes to be on a more level playing field, ultimately creating opportunities for more representation and inclusion in media,” Roggero wrote. His endorsement contrasts with recent attacks on Sohn from the League of United Latin American Citizens — which counts AT&T, Verizon, Charter and Comcast among its corporate partners — as well as right-leaning groups, which have accused Sohn of supporting the censorship of conservatives.
— And good luck at the Herring holiday dinner: Although One America News President Charles Herring endorsed Sohn last month, his father, Robert, who owns the far-right cable network, lashed out at her in a TV appearance this week and insisted the company as a whole does not endorse her. (Of note: Charles Herring’s endorsement appeared to have been removed from OAN’s website as of Wednesday night.)
MT EXCLUSIVE: FTC MISSION CHANGE RAISES EYEBROWS — House Energy and Commerce Republicans are questioning the FTC’s under-the-radar decision to delete the phrase “without unduly burdening legitimate business activity” from its mission statement. In a letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan, ranking member Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.) and Rep. Gus Bilirakis (R-Fla.) asked the agency to explain.
“This language has been included in FTC mission statements for decades, through both Republican and Democrat administrations,” they wrote. “Your amendment suggests the FTC is departing from its traditional focus.”
The lawmakers questioned whether the tweak is connected in some way to Democrats’ social spending package, which if passed would give the FTC the ability to fine companies who break the law. Under current law, the agency can only impose fines on a second offense.
The mission statement change is likely to come up at today’s E&C hearing on legislation to make the internet a safer place.
SPEAKING OF THAT HEARING — It’s the committee’s second hearing on holding “Big Tech” accountable, following last week’s session on potential changes to Section 230 with Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. This week, the consumer protection panel is turning its attention to a slate of seven bills that touch on everything from social media data access to algorithms and whistleblowers. Here’s a rundown:
— From the Democrats: Lawmakers will consider a bill aimed at boosting transparency around social media ads by requiring large digital platforms to maintain an ad library accessible to academic researchers and the FTC. Another would ban online platforms from using algorithms in a discriminatory way and would require platforms to detail for users what types of algorithmic processes that they use. Other bills would ban targeting children under 16 with manipulative marketing tactics and certain features like auto-play, as well as implement new protections for whistleblowers at companies under the FTC’s jurisdiction.
— From the Republicans: Two GOP bills are up for consideration, both aimed at China. They would require disclosures whenever a website or app stores collected data in China or has Chinese ownership.
— From both sides: Only one of these seven bills is bipartisan. It would ban the use of dark patterns — manipulative designs in online user interfaces meant to get users to do things they didn’t intend to — on large online platforms. A Senate version of the bill was reintroduced Wednesday ahead of Instagram head Adam Mosseri’s congressional appearance.
MEANWHILE IN THE SENATE — The Senate Commerce communications panel is convening a hearing on algorithms that are used to shape users’ experiences online, such as those used by Instagram, YouTube and TikTok. “Rather than users choosing what they see online, these algorithms make the decision for them to maximize growth and revenue,” Chair Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) will say. “Civic health and the wellbeing of consumers comes second.”
In his opening remarks, he will highlight four points: People want to have more control over their personal data; they want to know what’s happening inside the tech companies with their data; existing oversight institutions need to be strengthened, such as through legislation to increase the number of technologists at the FTC; and platforms need to be held accountable for their actions.
Ranking member John Thune (R-S.D.) will warn against filter bubbles, situations where algorithms create “a unique universe of information for each user” that can lead to political polarization and social isolation. He will tout his bipartisan bill that requires platforms to disclose when they use algorithms that determine the content users see and allow users to switch to an option that wouldn’t cause filter bubbles.
“Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that most users don’t make a conscious decision to enter the filter bubble,” he will say. “This can be particularly troubling for younger users.”
SHINING A LIGHT ON SOCIAL MEDIA DATA — Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) announced this morning legislation aimed at boosting transparency for social media data.
The Platform Accountability and Transparency Act would direct the FTC to issue rules that establish certain data social media platforms must make available to researchers or the public. In addition, researchers would be able to submit applications to the National Science Foundation for approval, which would then determine what data platforms are required to share. The bill would also establish a platform accountability and transparency office at the FTC to address questions surrounding privacy and cybersecurity related to how researchers access the data.
— Section 230 angle: Platforms’ failure to cooperate would be deemed an unfair or deceptive practice. Those platforms would be stripped of their Section 230 immunity in cases where civil claims are brought against them and their noncompliance with these new rules significantly contributed to the alleged harms.
FACEBOOK’S POLITICAL AD PROBLEM — Scores of political ads still go undetected on the world’s largest social media network despite the company’s efforts to boost transparency, POLITICO’s Mark Scott reports. That’s based on research out this morning from researchers at New York University and Belgium’s KU Leuven, showing tens of thousands of paid-for partisan messages snuck through the company’s filters. Thousands more were labeled political ads, even though they had nothing to do with politics, according to the report.
— By the numbers: Delving into almost 34 million ads, published between July 2020 and February 2021, the researchers focused on those ads that appeared to be political, but that required Facebook to make judgments about whether they should carry the required disclosures.
In 83 percent of these instances, the social media giant got it wrong. “This should be terrifying,” said Laura Edelson, a New York University academic who co-authored the report. “Ads is where Facebook has the most information. If it can’t detect which ads are political, this is the easiest ball to hit.”
— Lost in translation: How Facebook handled these suspect political ads also differed widely depending on the country. In the U.S., less than one percent of political ads went undetected. Yet in France and Spain, the number of political ads that ran without necessary disclosures quickly rose to one in every four political ads. In Malaysia, almost half of all political ads reviewed by the researchers went unlabeled.
In response, Meta, the parent company of Facebook, said that the vast majority of the political ads the researchers reviewed did carry the correct disclaimers. “Their findings suggest there were potential issues with less than five percent of all political ads,” spokesperson Joe Osborne said.
— Speaking of Facebook: A group of 16 Rohingya students and advocates filed a complaint this morning against the company’s Irish division (which has legal authority for its activities outside the U.S.) with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development over claims the platform helped to incite violence and hate against them during the ongoing genocide in Myanmar.
The group is using the OECD’s guidelines for multinational companies to call on Facebook to pay for education for these refugees, now living in Bangladesh, while also urging the company to take responsibility for its role in the recent violence. A Meta spokesperson declined to comment.
ROBOCALL FIGHTERS — Thune and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) introduced the Robocall Trace Back Enhancement Act on Wednesday, which would provide liability protections for privately led efforts to trace back the origins of illegal and abusive robocalls. The two Senate Commerce members had authored the TRACED Act, which Congress passed in 2019 and gave the FCC more powers to take on robocallers.
President Joe Biden announced his intent to nominate Meg Whitman, the former CEO of Quibi, HP and eBay, to be the U.S. ambassador to Kenya.
Tom Manatos is joining Block (formerly known as Square) as head of federal policy. He was previously VP of government relations at Spotify. … Sydney Pettit is now director of government affairs at CTIA. She previously was a legislative assistant for Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). … Lori Wallach is joining the American Economic Liberties Project as director of its ReThink Trade program. She currently is director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. … Gardner Foster has joined Squire Patton Boggs’ communications practice as of counsel. He most recently served as principal for satellite policy at SpaceX, and is a Sprint (now T-Mobile) alum.
Google’s Jigsaw unit announced this morning that the Perspective API, used to detect potentially toxic or unwanted comments online, is now available in 10 new languages: Arabic, simplified Chinese, Czech, Dutch, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Hindi and Hinglish (described by Google as a mix of English and Hindi transliterated using Latin characters).
A coalition of civil society groups, including New America’s Open Technology Institute, Ranking Digital Rights and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has released an update to the Santa Clara Principles, first outlined in 2018, to ensure transparency and due process in content moderation.
No filter: Mosseri testified on the Hill for the first time Wednesday. Alex and Rebecca have POLITICO’s top takeaways from that session.
Diving in: “Why the FTC Rejected Nvidia’s Antitrust Settlement for $75 Billion Arm Deal.” More from The Information.
Not in our neighborhood: SpaceX expanded to Boca Chica, Texas. But it’s become a nightmare for disgruntled neighbors and wildlife conservationists, NBC reports.
Head in the cloud: “Amazon Outage Disrupts Lives, Surprising People About Their Cloud Dependency,” via WSJ. … “Amazon Outage Sparks Anger as Fridges Stop, People Locked Out,” from Bloomberg.
Transparency battle: “Billionaire Koch-Backed Group Sues FTC Over Antitrust Enforcement,” via Bloomberg.
Striking a deal: Roku and Google have reached a multi-year agreement on YouTube and YouTube TV, Variety reports.
Search woes: “Amazon’s search results full of ads that may be ‘unlawfully deceiving’ consumers, complaint to FTC claims.” More from WaPo.
Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Bob King ([email protected]), Heidi Vogt ([email protected]), Emily Birnbaum ([email protected]), John Hendel ([email protected]), Rebecca Kern ([email protected]), Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected]), Leah Nylen ([email protected]), and Benjamin Din ([email protected]). Got an event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. And don’t forget: Add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.
SEE YOU TOMORROW!