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Big Tech Companies Talk the Talk on Privacy at CES 2021: Will They Walk the Walk?

Tim White

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Photo of panelists during CES 2021

January 12, 2021 – Privacy is of paramount importance as the world accelerates its adoption of new technology during a tumultuous pandemic, big tech companies said during a panel at the Consumer Technology Association’s CES 2021.

Technology has become increasingly more important in our lives, said Anne Toth, director of the Alexa Trust program at Amazon. The bar has been raised for companies to demonstrate why their products are trustworthy and keep their privacy safe, she explained.

She claimed that Alexa, Amazon’s artificially intelligent smart home device, creates important interactions for people and is an essential part of their lives, she said, especially for those with accessibility needs.

Our experience with the world is becoming more mediated by technology, explained Keith Enright, chief privacy officer at Google. Users feel more nervous than they have been in the past because they rely on technology more than ever, he said.

Our experience with the world is becoming more mediated by technology, explained Keith Enright, chief privacy officer at Google. Users feel more nervous than they have been in the past because they rely on technology more than ever, he said.

That’s why people need reassurance that their privacy is secure online, and that’s why he said Google is phasing out third-party cookies on their Chrome browser.

Twitter also said that reassurance comes in the form of transparency, said Damien Kieran, chief privacy officer for the tech platform. It is important that people know what data the company collects and how they use it, he said.

Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation brings awareness of privacy to the U.S.

Contrasting the United States with Europe, Enright explained that the EU has been a leading voice in privacy law, and yet America has been following in their footsteps.

Kieran described Twitter as a global experience, a tool that can be used across any part of the world. That kind of user experience relies heavily on data transferring freely across borders, he explained, and privacy protection laws may lead to data becoming fragmented and difficult to access, which could create a challenge for companies and users as they use technology.

Because GDPR is a new law that went into effect in 2018, Toth explained that people’s awareness of their own data has drastically increased since then, especially in America since the U.S. does not have similar regulation.

Will Congress and the Biden administration look to new federal privacy regulation?

The pressure to pass a federal privacy law in the U.S. is increasing, according to Enright, and the incoming Biden administration may push for one. Although no general federal privacy rules exist right now, many states control the flow of data.

“The reality that we are all increasingly dealing with is data is driving everything. And therefore virtually any set of legal requirements are increasingly either being revised or reinterpreted to meet legal requirements affecting the movement and governance of data,” he said.

But it creates a bipartisan political challenge, Enright explained, because members of Congress might likely want extra legislation attached to it.

Kieran expressed concern that the U.S. must get privacy laws right. Otherwise there will be the balkanization of data and technology services that  no one wants to see, he said.

The panelists also commented on a Federal Trade Commission’s order in December 2020 requiring social media companies to gather information on how they gather and use consumer data.

All of the tech players agreed that better informed federal regulators are a good thing. They said they were optimistic that the FTC’s having hired more technologists will advise better policy making.

Reporter Tim White studied communication and political science at the University of Utah, and previously worked on Capitol Hill for a member of Congress. A native of Salt Lake City, he escapes to the Pacific Northwest as often as he can. He is passionate about politics, Star Wars, and breakfast cereal.

Big Tech

Government’s Reactive Nature Hobbling Tech Regulation, Expert Says

Congress may need another big tech breach to move earnestly on regulation, says consultant.

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Steve Haro at FiscalNote event

April 12, 2021 – The reactive nature of Congress to data crises means another breach of citizens’ privacy may be needed to spurn the next big legislative move, said a former congressional chief of staff.

“We still have questions to answer how to deal with technology dominance. We are not there yet because, unfortunately, Congress, for the most part, tends to act in response to crisis,” said Steve Haro, who is currently a government affairs consultant and was a former assistant secretary of commerce.

During a discussion sponsored by FiscalNote and CQ Rollcall, experts joined in a conversation on the current state of public policy for the tech industry and how influential Congress and the Biden-Harris admission will be on dealing with big tech.

Among the discussed issues was how the government will deal with intermediary liability provision Section 230.

Lawmakers have wondered whether the provision — which protects platforms from legal liability for posts by their users — offers too much protection to social networks when it comes to content moderation and disinformation. This central premise has spurned calls for a reform of Section 230; a number of Democrats have proposed their own bill to keep much of the protections except for paid posts.

“I do not believe 230 needs change, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have concerns,” Haro said. “I believe there is collective agreement this is still a necessary law, and it has worked. It has allowed the internet to build do what has become, good or bad.”

Haro pointed to the congressional hearings into Facebook’s handling of the Cambridge Analytica scandal three years ago, which saw the scraping of millions of user accounts without their consent. The result did not see substantial progress on regulations. “We might need another crisis to spur Congress into action,” Haro said.

Michael Drobac, principal at the law firm Dentons, said “we are not there, and I would say the thing that has been most present and clear is that in most of these hearings” the members of Congress are still trying to understand the technology to make a meaningful impact.

“The reality is that section 230 is as important today as it was when it was passed,” Haro said.

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Big Tech

Regulatory Commission Needed To Monitor Big Tech Collection Of Consumer Data, Professor Says

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot of Robin Gaster from Henry George School of Social Science

April 8, 2021 — There needs to be a digital regulatory commission created to ensure big tech cannot run wild with consumer data, said Robin Gaster, a George Washington University public policy scholar.

Gaster, who’s also president of Incumetrics, a data and program evaluation consultancy, published a book that was released this month about Amazon’s rise from an online bookstore to everything else.

Gaster sat down with Broadband Breakfast on Wednesday and talked about the e-commerce giant’s reach into industries like healthcare and its rapid collection of more consumer data. The solution, he proposes, is creating a “new digital deal,” which would see a sort-of digital Federal Communications Commission — an entity which has the resources and the person power to match Amazon’s growing force.

Amazon’s reach into health care needs to be met with proper oversight and ethics to ensure it really will protect consumer privacy, he said.

The e-commerce behemoth acquired PillPack, a prescription delivery company, developed the Amazon Halo, a competitor device to Fitbit, and launched Amazon Care, a telehealth app service. Add Amazon’s own Alexa AI platform into the mix and it has a stream of access to valuable data.

“I would absolutely imagine that five years from now, if you sprain your knee, you probably will not go on the Internet and look for things and trying to figure it out. You will say, ‘Alexa,’ I sprained my knee. What should I do?” said Gaster.

Amazon’s breakneck growth into healthcare is concerning because no one knows exactly what could or intends to do with all the data it possesses, Gaster said. With so much aggregated data across its products and services, Amazon needs to be held accountable for its actions so that if something goes wrong, there are ways to fix it that are open and trustworthy.

Gaster said governments and companies alike are playing “privacy theater” – they talk about protecting privacy, but it’s a mere performance put on to make it seem like they care about it, he said.

Alexa takes in all sorts of data from voice-commands and people’s Amazon accounts. It may as well be a virtual doctor someday, but people don’t know how or if they can control their data recorded by Alexa, Gaster said.

The notion that people can control their data is ridiculous, said Gaster. “We are walking across the digital plane naked. We have no clothes!” he said, adding no one can wade through the legalese in the terms and conditions and privacy statements.

Gaster’s book is entitled Behemoth – Amazon Rising: Power and Seduction in the Age of Amazon.

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Courts

Supreme Court Declares Trump First Amendment Case Moot, But Legal Issues For Social Media Coming

Benjamin Kahn

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Photo of Justice Clarence Thomas in April 2017 by Preston Keres in the public domain

April 5, 2021—Despite accepting a petition that avoids the Supreme Court deliberating on whether a president can block social media users, Justice Clarence Thomas on Monday issued a volley that may foreshadow future legal issues surrounding social media in the United States.

On Monday, the Supreme Court sent back to a lower court and ruled as moot a lawsuit over whether former President Donald Trump could block followers on Twitter, after accepting a petition by the federal government to end the case because Trump wasn’t president anymore.

The case dates back to March 2018, when the Knight First Amendment Institute and others brought a case against former president Trump in the Southern District of New York for blocking users based on their political views, arguing the practice is a violation of the first amendment.

The lower court judge agreed, and the decision was upheld by the United States Court of Appeals.

In accepting the petition by the government, Justice Thomas stated that adjudicating legal issues surrounding digital platforms is uniquely difficult. “Applying old doctrines to new digital platforms is rarely straightforward,” he wrote. The case in question hinged on the constitutionality of then-President Trump banning people from interacting with his Twitter account, which the plaintiff argued was a protected public forum.

Thomas stated that while today’s conclusion was able to be vacated, that likely would not be the case in the future. He went on to say that digital platforms exercise “concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties.”

He continued: “We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.”

Even though Facebook and Google were not the platforms in question in this case, Thomas pointed to them as “dominant digital platforms” and stated that they have “enormous control over speech.” He stated that Google, Facebook, and Twitter have the capabilities to suppress information and speech at will, and referenced the “cataclysmic consequences” for authors that Amazon disagrees with.

Thomas also rejected the notion that other options exist.

“A person always could choose to avoid the toll bridge or train and instead swim the Charles River or hike the Oregon Trail. But in assessing whether a company exercises substantial market power, what matters is whether the alternatives are comparable.”

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