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Silicon Valley has found itself at the center of increasing antitrust scrutiny in Washington. But the Republican charged with leading the Senate’s work on tech issues says lawmakers’ first priority needs to be data privacy legislation.
The Senate Judiciary Committee’s new tech task force leader, Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), wants to use her perch to hold tech companies accountable. But before Congress aims its hammer at Big Tech’s power, she says lawmakers need to pass data privacy legislation and see how that changes the companies’ business models and impacts competition in the market.
“I think what you’re going to see us do in the Senate is a more steady, incremental approach,” Blackburn told me.
That approach splits sharply from the Democratic-led House Judiciary Committee, which has opened a wide-ranging, bipartisan investigation into technology companies’ power and their impact on competition. Democrats have already held a hearing with executives from top tech companies on antitrust issues, and their work to scale back tech’s power is expected to only ramp up in the fall when Congress returns.
The diverging priorities illustrate that while there is a broad bipartisan consensus that Silicon Valley is overdue for regulation, there’s little agreement in a divided Congress about which tech policy issues should even be the priority — let alone how lawmakers should craft such measures.
Blackburn’s task force kicked off its work just before recess last month when the Tennessee Republican hosted a bipartisan group of senators for a meeting with executives from companies including Mozilla and Snap. Before the Senate left for recess, Blackburn spoke to The Technology 202 about her priorities for the new task force. Here are the top takeaways from our conversation:
- Blackburn says a key focus of the task force is to help lawmakers “up their institutional knowledge” on issues like privacy, data security, competition and accusations that tech companies engage in political censorship. (The tech companies have repeatedly denied they engage in censoring conservatives.) Though the task force was created within the Senate Judiciary Committee, Blackburn expects the work to span committees and parties. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is serving as co-chair of the task force, according to a news release.
- Blackburn wants Congress to use her legislation, the BROWSER Act, as a starting point for data regulation. Blackburn first introduced the bill while in the House and introduced it in April in the Senate. The bill, which stands for the “Balancing the Rights of Web Surfers Equally and Responsibly,” would require tech companies to provide clear and conspicuous notice of their privacy policies and would also require companies to get consent from consumers to collect sensitive data like social security number. It would give people the right to opt out of the gathering of less sensitive information like search history.
- Blackburn thinks the Federal Trade Commission should continue to be in charge of enforcing privacy restrictions — even though she was disappointed by the $5 billion fine handed to Facebook. Blackburn thinks the penalty should have been $50 billion. But the Republican still believes the agency is best positioned to take the lead on privacy. “They are our nation’s privacy regulator in the physical space and in the virtual space. They have history and the expertise to be a privacy regulator,” she said. “And I think it is up to Congress to actually put some laws on the book and to begin to build this framework and then work with them on penalties, enforcement, limited rulemaking if necessary.”
Blackburn didn’t give a clear timeline when pressed about whether the Senate would be able to craft bipartisan privacy legislation before California’s state privacy law takes effect next year. Previous federal efforts have been mired in conflict along party lines, including a push to allow individuals to sue companies for mishandling their data, as Bloomberg previously reported.
Blackburn, one of the Republicans who attended Trump’s social media summit, told me her task force will be “looking into censorship and prioritization.” But she doesn’t support a proposal from Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to fight alleged bias against conservatives by overhauling a key legal shield that protects tech companies from liability for content third parties share on their platforms, stressing a more cautious approach. Blackburn says she instead plans to work with industry representatives on the issues. “The Internet is a wonderful tool. It underpins every single sector of our economy. We do not know what innovator is going to bring forward something that will be revolutionary and we will say, ‘My gosh, how did we ever get along without it?’”
BITS, NIBBLES AND BYTES
BITS: Facebook will cease to use outside contractors to transcribe audio from its products as tech companies increasingly come under fire for paying humans to review audio their services collect, Bloomberg News’s Sarah Frier reports. The move follows announcements from Apple and Google that they would halt contractor reviews of audio after public backlash.
Contractors told Sarah that they were tasked with transcribing audio, some of which contained “vulgar content,” but were never informed where the audio came from or why Facebook wanted the transcriptions. Facebook says the content in question was anonymized. But because Facebook does not explicitly disclose to users that their content is reviewed by a third party, reviewers expressed concern to Sarah that the work was unethical.
Facebook told Sarah that the contractors were assigned conversation audio that Facebook Messenger users had elected to have transcribed, and that the contractors were being used to check the accuracy of the artificial intelligence used to transcribe the conversations. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg denied that the company uses audio recordings in targeting ads in an April 2018 testimony in front of the Senate, but did not explain what happens to recordings after they are collected.
Critics and lawmakers have scrutinized Amazon, Apple and Google for using human reviewers without asking for consent. Microsoft also recently came under fire for secretly using human reviews of translated audio to improve performance of its software. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
BYTES: Rival job search websites are asking the European Union’s top regulator to temporarily halt Google’s job search services in the region while it investigates what the 23 companies argue is “anticompetitive behavior,” Reuters’s Foo Yun Chee and Paresh Dave report. The request follows a similar complaint in the E.U. from Google rival Yelp, which claims the search giant eats up the traffic of competitors in favor of its own products.
The complaint, which claims that Google gives an unfair advantage to its own job search feature in its search results, was sent to European Union competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager on Tuesday. Google maintains that because it allows rival search services to use the feature if their listings meet format standards decided by Google, it is not in violation of antitrust laws.
The tool has received more mixed reviews in the United States, where some legacy job sites that comply with the search engine’s guidelines say they’ve seen an increase in traffic and applicants. Others, such as Henry Shao, CEO of job search start-up Zippia, agree that Google unfairly demotes companies that don’t comply with its requirements.
The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department have both announced plans to look into online competition in the United States, but both declined to comment to Reuters on Google’s job search.
BYTES: FTC Chair Joseph Simons would consider breaking up big tech companies depending on the outcome of his agency’s investigation into anticompetitive practices in the tech industry, he told Bloomberg News’s David McLaughlin in an interview. That could include Facebook, which is being investigated by the FTC and has been accused by lawmakers and competitors of trying quash its competition by buying up rivals, including Instagram and WhatsApp.
“If you have to, you do it,” Simons, who oversees an agency task force that is broadly examining competition in tech, said about potentially undoing mergers. “It’s not ideal because it’s very messy. But if you have to you have to.” Simons told Bloomberg that it’s possible the FTC and the Justice Department, which is working in parallel to examine online platforms and retail, could pursue antitrust investigations into the same companies for different reasons. The Justice Department is targeting Google’s digital advertising and search business as officials launch a wide-ranging antitrust probe of large tech companies, according to Bloomberg.
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