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Apple Gets a Foot in Joe Biden’s Door. What Will It Mean for Silicon Valley?

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Photo of Cynthia Hogan courtesy Apple Insider

November 6, 2020 — With Twitter flagging and obscuring Donald Trump’s tweets on a daily basis, and with Facebook and other internet gatekeepers clamping down on pro-Trump vote conspiracy groups, one question looming over the final vote-count is: How will big tech fare during the next presidential administration?

If Joe Biden retains his narrow-but-leading vote totals in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada and secures the 270 presidential electoral votes necessary, Silicon Valley may breathe a sigh of relief. GOP populism has turned strongly against the tech industry’s biggest players.

But with renewed vigor behind antitrust enforcement among progressive Democrats, the question looms: How would President-elect Biden deal with the country’s increasing angst about the power of Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple?

Some clues to answer that question may come from the role that Cynthia Hogan –former senior director of government affairs at Apple – played in the Biden campaign and may play in a Biden-Harris administration.

At the pinnacle of influence for Biden’s choice of Kamala Harris

Hogan, who became a lobbyist after leaving the Obama-Biden Administration, joined Apple in April 2016 and was the Cupertino-based tech giant’s top public policy official. (She also served briefly as the top lobbyist for the National Football League.)

Hogan resigned from Apple in April 2020 to become one of four members of the Biden’s committee vetting vice presidential candidates. She was the only non-politician on the group that included former Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.

That committee, of course, picked Sen. Kamala Harris, who hails from Apple’s home state within Silicon Valley, California – and is considered much less of a trust-buster than others then considered for the slot, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

For decades, Hogan has been professionally close to Biden. Hogan was hired by then-senator Biden as a counsel in 1991. She soon became staff director and then chief counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden was its chairman.

Long-time aide to Sen. Biden and Vice President Biden

Biden, of course, served in the Senate from 1973 until 2009, which he became Vice President under President Obama. Hogan was at Biden’s side for his major legislative achievements, being one of the chief architects of the 1994 Violent Crime and Control Act and the 1995 Violence Against Women Act.

And Hogan followed Biden to the White House, where she served as deputy assistant to the president and counsel to the vice president of. In that capacity, she advised on a broad range of domestic and foreign policy issues before the Obama administration, including health care, financial regulation, information technology, privacy and other civil rights, national security, and criminal justice.

She also managed all compliance, oversight, investigative matters, and litigation for the vice president. Special projects for the administration ranged from leading the effort to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court, to coordinating the administration’s proposals relating to gun violence, to conceiving and producing a public service announcement on teen dating violence.

Hogan’s role in public policy for Apple

During her time at Apple, Hogan was closely involved in tech policy issues including antitrust, privacy, net neutrality and Silicon Valley’s relationships with China.

She was also listed as a member of board of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation until at least May 2020. Founded by centrist Democrat Rob Atkinson, ITIF has taken many pro-tech positions, and has voiced considerable skepticism at antitrust actions against big tech companies.

Understanding Hogan’s public policy positions and influence could be significant in predicting stances the Biden administration might take in approaching tech issues, including a possible rewrite of or greater enforcement of antitrust law, enacting changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, and reinstating net neutrality.

China

In November 2017, Politico reported that Apple defended removing its virtual private network from its app store in China, arguing that its presence in the country is helping to support the free flow of information.

Responding to concerns raised by Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Hogan wrote: “We are convinced that Apple can best promote fundamental rights, including the right of free expression, by being engaged even where we may disagree with a particular country’s law.”

Photo of Cynthia Hogan, then at the National Football League, from Politico

Hogan said Apple removed certain VPN operators because they were not in compliance with Chinese law. Leahy and Cruz questioned these removals and said that VPNs enable internet users to access the uncensored version of the internet, including sites that are blocked by China’s policies.

Antitrust

Currently there is a significant movement to revisit existing antitrust laws in the United States, particularly by the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee. Subcommittee members in October released a report highlighting what the subcommittee believes to be systematic failures allowing tech companies to amass to enormous sizes. Many want to reassess antitrust standards and clamp down on mergers.

The subcommittee’s report gives a good guide to what legislation may come from the House. These Democrats propose moving away from the consumer welfare standard, which has dominated antitrust law for decades, and taking a stricter hand with large conglomerate corporations.

Apple has thus far largely escaped the public scrutiny and criticism that have confronted Google, Facebook and Amazon. In October, the Trump Administration Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against Google, and the federal government and state attorneys general have said they are investigating Facebook, too.

Biden has made few appeals to anger against big tech on the campaign trail, and antitrust has been noticeably absent as a theme of the Harris-Biden campaign.

The Biden administration might continue to hew to the center on antitrust. And if big tech continues to have influence, that might blunt progressive cries to move away from the consumer welfare standard or to break up existing tech companies up. Changing that standard, tech companies and free market advocates charge, would ultimately hurt consumers.

Privacy

Apple has faced some concern during the past four years over the privacy and security of Face ID, although Apple has addressed most of them to emerge with the image as more pro-privacy than its Silicon Valley compatriots Google and Facebook.

When former Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questioned the company, “What steps did Apple take to ensure its system was trained on a diverse set of faces, in terms of race, gender, and age? How is Apple protecting against racial, gender, or age bias in Face ID?”, Hogan responded, according to Gizmodo: “The accessibility of the product to people of diverse races and ethnicities was very important to us. Face ID uses facial matching neural networks that we developed using over a billion images, including IR and depth images collected in studies conducted with the participants’ informed consent.”

Hogan continued, “We worked with participants from around the world to include a representative group of people accounting for gender, age, ethnicity, and other factors. We augmented the studies as needed to provide a high degree of accuracy for a diverse range of users. In addition, a neural network that is trained to spot and resist spoofing defends against attempts to unlock your phone with photos or masks.”

Section 230

Apple has been less enmeshed in controversies surrounding Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act than have Google, Facebook and Twitter. But Biden himself, in an interview with the New York Times editorial board in January, called for revoking Section 230.

And Harris supporting rolling back some aspects of the law: In 2018, Harris played a key role in advancing the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, which changes the rules governing safe harbor provisions shielding tech companies from being held liable for the content posted on their platforms.

Net Neturality

On the issue of net neutrality, a Biden administration and Silicon Valley seem to be on the same page. Hogan spoke out on the issue in a letter from Apple to the Federal Communications Commission in 2017. “Broadband providers should not block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against lawful websites and services,” she urged.

Social Media

Vague Social Media Laws Create Fear in the Middle East. Can Encryption Tools Help?

Experts discuss how social media is being treated in the Middle East and how to respond.

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Chris Meserole, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution

WASHINGTON, January 25, 2022 – Far from being the savior of democracy in the Middle East, four experts said Monday that social media, and government regulation of it, is beginning to hurt civil rights activists.

The world is witnessing an increase in laws restricting social media access and hence regulating freedom of speech, especially in the Middle East, agreed the panelists, speaking at a Brookings Institution event.

Dina Hussein, the head of counterterrorism and dangerous organizations for Europe, the Middle East, and Africa at Facebook, and Chris Meserole, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, stated that too many countries are passing vague laws about what is and isn’t allowed on social media.

These new laws are purposefully unclear, they said. This new strategy has made it easier for the government to take down posts and restrict critics’ internet access while leaving up the posts of supporters and government officials.

These laws also spread fear within the regime because the vagueness puts anyone at risk of being arrested for something they post, they said.

When asked what can be done, Hussein said that Facebook promotes honesty through a website that focuses on Facebook’s own transparency and raises awareness of other countries’ laws for their users. In addition, Facebook is personally working to support civil rights activists in the areas of the world that are implementing such laws, Hussein said.

Encryption to avoid surveillance

Meserole said that democratic governments should not be fighting “fire with fire.” Instead, he wants civil rights groups in the Middle East to strengthen their ability to operate without social media. Many activists rely on social media to build their bases and spread their message. So, Meserole emphasized that as the authoritarian regimes increase their abilities to watch, manipulate, and censor social media, democratic governments should invest in technology that will help those who are fighting for civil rights encrypt their media or work outside of the surveillance of government.

Another concern of the guest speakers was the rise in online misinformation and the trend of authoritarian regimes making new accounts to promote their message rather than trying to censor the language of the opposition.

Some people wonder why these groups don’t just eliminate media within their countries. Meserole’s answer is that the government has it is own various benefits to having social media, and so they pass vague internet laws that allow them to have more legal control instead.

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Antitrust

FTC Mum on Microsoft-Activision Deal, Proposes Review of Merger Guidelines

The deal would elevate Microsoft in an even more favorable position in the games-as-a-service market.

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FTC Chairwoman Lina Khan on CNBC last week

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – As Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Lina Khan does media rounds this past week, she has refused to comment on last week’s news that Microsoft has agreed to buy video game making giant Activision-Blizzard for nearly $70 billion.

As per policy, the FTC and the Department of Justice, which on Tuesday jointly held a press conference on merger reform on the same day of the announced consolidation, said they could not comment on the deal, which would increase the Xbox maker’s gaming market share and allow it to better compete with Japanese behemoth Sony.

During the press conference, Khan, installed as chairwoman in June as an already outspoken critic of certain big tech practices, announced that the organizations would be launching a review of merger guidelines. Khan stressed that the current guidelines do not adequately protect consumers and promote competition in the era of the digital economy.

“While the current merger boom has delivered massive fees for investment banks, evidence suggests that many Americans historically have washed out with diminished opportunity, higher prices, lower wages, and lagging innovation,” she said. “These facts invite us to assess how our merger policy tools can better equip us to discharge our statutory obligations and halt this trend.”

She reiterated those goals on a CNBC interview on Wednesday. The purchase of the highly influential Call of Duty franchise maker will have to go through her office. It also presents another stress test for the office, as it is already engaged in an existing lawsuit against Facebook practices. Both Facebook and Amazon have asked for Khan to be recused from investigations in their companies because of her past positions on them.

The deal would significantly expand Microsoft’s Game Pass platform, which offers free games to play for a monthly subscription. Microsoft announced on the day of the proposed deal that Game Pass surpassed 25 million subscriptions.

“Upon close, we will offer as many Activision Blizzard games as we can within Xbox Game Pass and PC Game Pass, both new titles and games from Activision Blizzard’s incredible catalog,” said Microsoft Gaming CEO Phil Spencer said in a statement.

Despite its numerous successful intellectual properties, Activision Blizzard has been marred with scandal in recent years. In 2021, the company was sued by California Department of Fair Employment and Housing for promoting a “frat boy” culture, whereby female employees were not only allegedly discriminated against, but also subjected to sexual assault and misconduct.

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Big Tech

Attorneys General Suing Google Over Location Data Collection

The D.C. attorney general is leading other state AGs alleging Google mislead consumers into believing they could disable location tracking.

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Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai

WASHINGTON, January 24, 2022 – The Office of the Attorney General for the District of Columbia has filed a lawsuit Monday against Google alleging “deceptive and unfair practices” related to obtaining consumer location data.

Attorney General Karl Racine‘s office argues that Google has been in violation of D.C.’s “Consumer Protection Procedures Act” since at least 2014. According to the complaint, Google is alleged to have lied to consumers, intentionally giving them the impression that they can disable Google’s ability to collect and retain user location data.

“In reality, consumers who use Google products cannot prevent Google from collecting, storing, and profiting from their location,” the complaint reads.

The documents outline that Google’s primary source of revenue is earned through digital advertising, and thus, Google was incentivized to harvest consumers’ personal data to better target ads – an effort that is significantly improved by collecting location data from users.

“Location data is among the most sensitive information Google collects from consumers,” the complaint says. “Location can also be used to infer personal details such as political or religious affiliation, sexual orientation, income, health status, or participation in support groups, as well as major life events, such as marriage, divorce, and the birth of children.”

Racine’s office is leading the effort with attorneys general in Texas, Indiana and Washington filing their own complaints, he said on Twitter.

The complaint further explains that due to reporting done Associated Press in 2018, it was revealed that Google explicitly deceived customers by allowing them to believe they have opted out of location tracking when the reality is their decision has no bearing on what kind of data Google collects.

“The AP story exposed that Google’s promise to consumers was false. Even when consumers explicitly opted out of location tracking by turning the Location History setting off, Google nevertheless recorded consumers’ locations via other means,” the complaint said.

The ubiquity of Google products and services only compounds the risk, the plaintiff argues, as Google products are found “essentially everywhere consumers go.”

“Google uses this window into consumers’ lives to sell advertising that is ‘targeted’ to consumers according to personal details Google has learned about them, including their demographics, habits, and interests.”

Targeted ads have long been in regulator’s sights, both in the E.U. and the U.S..

The complaint states that it is in Google’s best financial interest to obfuscate exactly what data is being collected, how it is being collected, and why. “The Company’s exhaustive surveillance practices are most effective, and therefore most lucrative, where consumers have no clear idea how to limit Google’s access to their personal information.

“The District files this suit to correct the deceptive and unfair practices that Google has used and uses to obtain consumers’ location data, and to ensure that consumers are able to understand and control the extent to which their location data is accessed, stored, used, and monetized by the Company.”

The AG’s office is not only seeking to compel Google to cease these practices, but also forfeit all revenue generated by them.

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