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Bipartisan Group of Senators Stoke Fears About Google’s Neutrality and Influence in 2020 Election

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WASHINGTON, June 25, 2019 — Fears about Google’s potential ability to influence the upcoming 2020 election ran rampant at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

That, coupled with allegations that the search engine giant inappropriately benefits from federal protections against liability, created a pressure cooker environment for Google’s witness before the Commerce Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet Subcommittee.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, aggressively grilled Google UX Director Maggie Stanphill over the company’s politics. He repeatedly asked her if she knew of any senior executives who voted for Trump in 2016, and claimed that public records demonstrated that Google employees donated significant funds to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, and none to Donald Trump’s campaign.

Several other senators also raised concerns about Google’s potential election influence.

Sen. Jon Tester from Montana, a Democrat, said that he believes Google executives could “literally sit down at a board meeting and determine the next president.”

Cruz raised the issue of an undercover video released on Monday by Project Veritas, a controversial conservative group frequently criticized for publishing false or misleading information.

The excerpts of the video from Monday appeared to showed Google official Jen Gennai, the head of responsible innovation, making statements that antitrust action against Google was a bad idea because smaller companies would be unable to prevent “the next Trump situation.”

Cruz discussed the “Trump situation” statement as if it referred to the election of Trump. But, in a Monday evening commentary about the secret recording, Gennai said that her comment was actually referring to Google’s ability to take action against online foreign interference and misinformation.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wi., joined Cruz in doubting the objectivity of major platforms, claiming that Instagram prompted new accounts to follow a list of exclusively liberal publications and commentators without any interest from the user.

Subcommittee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D., said  that if results were truly unbiased, a Google search for his own name should return results from Fox News rather than from The New York Times.

Several Democratic senators, including Tester, expressed concern about whether YouTube’s recommendation algorithm could radicalize users by recommending increasingly extreme content, citing as an example the presence of white nationalist and white supremacist videos in the site’s recommended video queue.

Stanphill, whose work at Google is focused on the platform’s Digital Wellbeing Initiative, was unable to give a specific reason for these results.

She said that Google builds products for everyone and has systems in place to prevent bias.

AI Now Institute Director Rashida Richardson pointed out research showing that there are no partisan disparities in search results. Results are affected by the veracity and timeliness of the content, which can sometimes have partisan implications.

Top search results and suggestions can also stem from which accounts have the most content and popularity, said Stephen Wolfram, CEO of Wolfram Research.

YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and other major social media platform operators have taken steps in recent years to crack down on harassment, hate speech, extremist content and other violations of their platforms’ terms of service.

Because that enforcement has often ensnared conservative activists, some prominent Republicans—including President Trump—allege that social media platforms’ enforcement of their terms of service is biased against conservatives.

Many conservatives, including Cruz in his remarks on Tuesday, said that the immunity provided to Google and others under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was conditioned on the entity serving as some kind of a neutral public forum.

Responding to Cruz’s question, Stanphill seemed to confirm that Google sees itself as fulfilling this role.

But Section 230 does not include a requirement of political or other neutrality in exchange for protection from liability for users’ speech. Online platforms are legally permitted to regulate content at their discretion.

Section 230, which was passed with almost unanimous bipartisan support, was designed to ensure that online services would be safeguarded from liability for taking steps to moderate content on their systems.

This would likely be changed were the “Ending Support for Internet Censorship Act,” introduced last week by Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., to take effect. That bill would condition platforms’ Section 230 protections on whether the Federal Trade Commission certifies that their terms of service enforcement is “politically neutral.”

(Photo of Sen. Cruz questioning Google witness Maggie Stanphill.)

Reporter Em McPhie studied communication design and writing at Washington University in St. Louis, where she was a managing editor for the student newspaper. In addition to agency and freelance marketing experience, she has reported extensively on Section 230, big tech, and rural broadband access. She is a founding board member of Code Open Sesame, an organization that teaches computer programming skills to underprivileged children.

Cybersecurity

FCC Halts Authorization of Equipment That Threatens National Security

The FCC’s order prevents future authorizations of equipment on the commission’s “Covered List” of national security threats.

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Photo of FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission published Friday a modification of certification rules that will bar from United States markets technologies that are considered threats to national security.

The commission’s action seeks to prevent Chinese tech companies deemed to be national security threats – such as Huawei and ZTE – from gathering data on and surveilling American citizens. The Chinese Communist government can force, under law, private companies to hand over data from their products, thus putting Americans at risk, experts and government officials have said.

Friday’s action bars the commission from issuing further authorizations for covered technologies, without which those technologies may not be imported to or marketed in the United States. The action also closes loopholes that would allow certain products to skirt the authorization process.

“That does not make any sense,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel in a statement. “After all, there is little benefit in having these lists and these bans in place just to leave open other opportunities for this equipment to be present in our networks. So today we are taking action to align our equipment authorization procedures with the rest of our national security policies.”

The FCC already publishes a list of entities and products, on the advice of Public Safety and Homeland Security,  that pose national security risks. The commission has long shown skepticism toward such risky technologies, notably disallowing the use of universal service funds to buy certain products in 2019.

The rule covers many types of equipment, including base stations, phones, cameras, and Wi-Fi routers.

With this decision, the FCC has fulfilled a congressional mandate to enact a moratorium on equipment on the covered list within 12 months. The statute followed a notice of proposed rulemaking it issued last year.

Congress in 2017 forbade the Department of Defense from using telecommunications equipment or services from Huawei or ZTE. Building on that effort, Congress the next year expanded prohibitions on federal use of technology from those companies and three others. In 2019, in response to concerns over the integrity of communications networks and supply chains, the White House declared a national emergency.

In March 2020, then-President Donald Trump signed into law the Secure Networks Act, requiring the FCC to prohibit the use of moneys it administers for the acquisition of designated communications equipment. The act promoted the removal of existing compromised equipment through a reimbursement program – called Rip and Replace – and further directed the commission to create and maintain the covered list.

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, outspoken on national security issues, celebrated Friday’s decision, but called for further action.

“We must also vigilantly monitor compliance with the rules we’ve established today, including by ensuring that entities do not make an end run around our decision by ‘white labeling’ covered gear – a process that involves putting a benign or front group’s name on equipment that would otherwise be subject to our prohibitions,” Carr said in a statement.

Rosenworcel said in her statement that the order covers “re-branded or ‘white label’ equipment that is developed for the marketplace. In other words, this approach is comprehensive.”

Carr also once again called for federal action against TikTok, the Chinese built social media app. The video-sharing app gathers extensive data on users, and despite protestations to the contrary, the platform routinely feeds Americans’ information to the Chinese government, reports say.

“Secure networks mean little if insecure applications are allowed to run, sweep up much of the same sensitive data, and send it back to Beijing,” Carr said.

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Robocall

FCC Cracks Down on Straight-to-Voicemail Robocalls

The commission’s ruling follows a notice of inquiry the agency approved last month.

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Photoillustration of a mobile phone, used with permission

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission on Monday took another step to combat telephone spammers by ruling that straight-to-voicemail robocalls are “call(s)” under the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act and will be subject to the law’s consumer protections.

According to the TCPA, before any call using an automatic dialing system or artificial or prerecorded voice is made to a wireless number, the recipient must provide affirmative consent. In 2017, All About the Message – the owner of a proprietary ringless, straight-to-voicemail calling software – petitioned the FCC to allow its software to operate outside of TCPA’s constraints. After the FCC received more than 8,000 comments and replies on the matter, nearly all opposing the petition, All About the Message sought to withdraw its request.

The FCC pushed forward, nonetheless. “Because the Petition drew substantial attention from commenters and members of Congress, and the applicability of the TCPA to ringless voicemail technology has been the subject of considerable recent litigation,” Monday’s ruling read, “We believe this declaratory ruling is necessary to resolve a controversy and remove uncertainty about ringless voicemail.”

“Imagine finding robocallers leaving junk voicemails on your phone without it ever having rung.” said FCC ChairwomanJessica Rosenworcel. “It’s annoying and it’s happening to too many of us.  Today we’re taking action to ensure these deceptive practices don’t find a way around our robocall rules and into consumers’ inboxes.”

The FCC’s ruling follows an anti-robocall notice of inquiry the agency approved last month. The commission is exploring how best to crack down on illegal robocalls occurring over non–internet protocol networks, which are technologically incompatible with the prevailing STIR/SHAKEN protocol.

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China

Report Urges States, Local Governments Follow Federal Rules on Prohibited Equipment Purchases

Only a handful of states have crafted their purchasing decisions after federal rules banning certain companies’ equipment.

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Members of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University

WASHINGTON, November 14, 2022 – A think tank is recommending state and local governments align their rules on buying technology from companies with federal guidelines that prevent agencies from purchasing certain prohibited foreign technology, such as ones from Chinese companies.

The Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University notified the Federal Communications Commission late last month of a report released that month regarding what it said was a concerning trend of state and local governments having outdated procurement policies that are seeing them purchase equipment banned for federal purchase.

“State and local policymakers should not be expected to independently analyze and address the threats posed by foreign technology, but it would behoove them to align their own procurement practices with the rules set by the federal government,” the report recommends.

The FCC has a list of companies, as required by the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act of 2019, that it updates on a rolling basis through commission votes that it says pose a national security threat to the country’s networks. It last updated the list in September, when it added Pacific Network Corp. and China Unicom Operations Ltd. to the growing list that already includes Huawei and ZTE.

Chinese companies and following Communist Party directions

U.S. officials and experts have warned that Chinese companies operating anywhere in the world must follow directions of the Chinese Communist Party, which they say could mean anything from surveillance to American data falling into the hands of that government.

The report notes at least six state governments had their networks breached by a state-sponsored Chinese hacking group between May 2021 and February 2022.

The only states that have enacted local regulations aligned with federal provisions are Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, and Vermont, the report said. Provisions in Georgia and Texas prohibit private companies from entering into agreements with the covered companies. Vermont, Texas and Florida provisions block state entities from purchasing equipment from countries like China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela and Syria. Louisiana and Georgia provisions ban public-funded schools from buying prohibited technology.

The remaining 45 states do not explicitly target the equipment and services they produce, nor are they directly responsible for following federal provisions, the report said, leaving state entities vulnerable in obtaining equipment from third party contractors that could pose a security risk.

“Many government entities also lack the in-house technical expertise and procedures to understand and address such threats in the first place, and those that do may prioritize addressing immediate threats like ransomware over the more abstract risks posed by foreign ICTS,” the report said.

Section 889 of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act is one out of four federal provisions addressing the issue, prohibiting federal agencies from using equipment and services from Huawei, ZTE, Hikvision, Dahua and Hytera as well as working with contractors that use the equipment.

Prohibited products finding their way in

In some cases, the report said, the listed companies will sell their products to third party contractors that are not listed on Section 889 to bypass regulations, according to the report. Due to the low cost of Chinese equipment, public schools and local governments will purchase from the third-party entities that are unknowingly selling prohibited equipment, it added.

“These ‘middle-man’ vendors can mask the origin of their products, which creates major challenges for organizations aiming to keep certain equipment and services off their networks”, the report reads.

“Currently, contractors are responsible for self-certifying that their products and internal networks do not contain covered [products]” and “… inspecting the IT infrastructure—equipment, services, and components – of every contractor that does business with the federal government would require a staggering level of resources, making it difficult for agencies to conduct effective oversight.”

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