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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.)

Cybersecurity

Remote Work an Opportunity for Service Providers to Build Trust on Cybersecurity: Research Director

A study by Futurum Research found organizations expect more remote work long-term.

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Photo of Ron Westfall, research director at Futurum Research

July 6, 2022 – An increase in remote work post-pandemic provides internet service providers with an opportunity to build trust by prioritizing cybersecurity, according to a new study discussed Wednesday.

The Futurum Research study of over 500 respondents – many of which are influential decision makers – concluded that post-pandemic, organizations are expecting their workforce to become more remote long-term.

“This, I believe, provides an opportunity for service providers to, for example, prioritize higher security as a way for these organizations to have more confidence and have more satisfaction in how the work-from-home coordination and limitations are optimized,” Ron Westfall, research director and senior analyst at Futurum Research, said at Fiber for Breakfast event on Wednesday

Cybersecurity is a huge concern for companies as employees work from home on various networks and with less supervision and “there is still a lot of work to be done,” continued Westfall. Security remains a hot topic in the industry as cyberattack threats increase.

Organizations that have already adopted a single, holistic approach to remote working are showing greater satisfaction with the outcomes of their collaboration platforms, Westfall said. Westfall indicated that executive leaders need to take action to produce an organization-wide work-from-home collaboration policy.

Video surveillance and artificial intelligence technologies are allowing key decision makers to maintain a remote work presence. However, over two-thirds of companies are still improvising how they will approach the remote or hybrid workforce, said Westfall.

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Privacy

Experts Wrangle Over Whether Online Children Protection Legislation Needs Overhaul

‘We can’t keep overhauling the regulatory structure.’

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WASHINGTON, June 21, 2022 – Observers at an Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event on Wednesday urged Washington not to take legislation protecting children online down the path of congressional overhaul, instead preferring guidance for the existing text to come from its administrator, the Federal Trade Commission.

The Child Online Privacy Protection Act, passed in 1998, includes online data protections for children under 13. In 2013, as designated by Congress, the FTC updated enforcement rules, giving parents more control over the online collection of their children’s personal information.

Since then, new advances in technology and social media has brought COPPA to the attention of many who consider substantive changes are needed, including privacy experts, senators and U.S. President Joe Biden, who addressed it in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

Some lawmakers have long called for an age increase for those protections through legislative reforms, which came before lawmakers this month introduced a proposal for the first federal privacy law, which would include data privacy protections for children under 17.

“We can’t keep overhauling the regulatory structure,” said Julia Tama, partner at law firm Venable LLP. “It takes a big investment for companies to come up to speed.”

Instead, she said, she wants “improvements on what we have rather than replacing it with a completely different framework.”

In May, the FTC issued a policy statement that will guide its enforcement of COPPA. It focused on four provisions: limiting the amount of data collected for children’s access to educational tools; restricting types of data collected and requiring reasons for why they are being collected; prohibiting ed tech companies from holding on to data for speculative purposes; and prohibiting the use of the data for targeted advertising purposes.

Graham Dufault, senior director for public policy at the App Association, said the FTC should be responsible for potential provisions made to COPPA. “The FTC’s enforcement of COPPA is a really important thing for us.”

But panelist James Cooper, associate professor of law and director of the program on economics and privacy at George Mason University, said COPPA isn’t in need of any major revisions. He said if the legislation requires change, he doesn’t want to see it done through FTC policy statements and instead should come from the crafters in Congress.

“If the FTC feels [the need to] expand COPPA beyond its current boundaries, it should go back to Congress,” Cooper said.

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Privacy

Expand Online Protections for 17-Year-Olds in Draft Federal Privacy Law, Committee Urged

The draft privacy law includes a provision to enhance privacy protections online for children under 17.

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Photo of the hearing held by the subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce

WASHINGTON, June 16, 2022 – Panelists before the subcommittee on consumer protection and commerce recommended Tuesday that a newly-crafted draft for federal privacy legislation introduced earlier this month include online protections for 17-year-olds.

The draft of the American Data Privacy and Protection Act, which would be the first federal privacy law, includes a provision to enhance privacy protections online for children under 17, including restrictions on Big Tech platforms’ data collection and targeted advertisements to those age groups.

But testimony from Jolina Cuaresma, senior counsel on privacy and technology policy at Common Sense Media, suggested that the language include 17-year-olds as well.

If the bill becomes law, she said this would provide a substantial upgrade to the Child Online Protection Privacy Act, which provides online protections for children under 13. “We need to cover all minors under the draft’s protections,” Cuaresma said, adding, “one in four children between the ages of 9 and 17 have had a sexual encounter with an adult online.”

With ongoing discussion about potential changes to COPPA and ensuring children’s privacy online due to increasing use of online educational tools and social media, Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Fl, stated during the hearing, “there is room for improvement in the draft for children’s protections.”

Big Tech regulation

Witnesses also said the draft should make clearer limits for Big Tech companies. Caitriona Fitzgerald, deputy director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said, “technology companies have too much power” and have been unregulated for too long. She urged the bill to define responsibilities more clearly for big tech companies, individuals, states, and federal entities.

Chairman Frank Pallone Jr. of the energy and commerce committee stated that if the bill passes, “our kids will be protected from abusive advertising and data transfers, and businesses will be required to protect consumer data or face real consequences.

“Comprehensive national privacy legislation is necessary to limit the excesses of Big Tech and ensure Americans can safely navigate the digital world,” said Pallone.

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