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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.

Big Tech

Government’s Reactive Nature Hobbling Tech Regulation, Expert Says

Samuel Triginelli

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Screenshot of Steve Haro at FiscalNote event

April 8, 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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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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Section 230

Sen. Mike Lee Promotes Bills Valuing Federal Spectrum, Requiring Content Moderation Disclosures

Tim White

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Screenshot of Mike Lee taken from Silicon Slopes event

April 5, 2021 – Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, said Friday spectrum used by federal agencies is not being utilized efficiently, following legislation he introduced early last year that would evaluate the allocation and value of federally-reserved spectrum.

The Government Spectrum Valuation Act, or S.553 and introduced March 3, directs the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to consult with the Federal Communications Commission and Office of Management and Budget to estimate the value of spectrum between 3 kilohertz and 95 gigahertz that is assigned to federal agencies.

Lee spoke at an event hosted by the Utah tech association Silicon Slopes on Friday about the legislation, in addition to other topics, including Section 230.

Some bands on the spectrum are reserved for federal agencies as they need it, but it’s not always managed efficiently, Lee said. Some are used by the Department of Defense for ‘national security,’ for example, but when asked what that spectrum is used for, we’re told, ‘we can’t tell you because of national security,’ he said.

“Just about everything we do on the internet is carried out through a mobile device, and all of that requires access to spectrum,” he said.

He said that lives are becoming more affected and enhanced by our connection to the internet, often through a wireless connection, which is increasing the need for the government to efficiently manage spectrum bandwidth, he said. Some of the bands are highly valuable, he said, comparing them to the “beach front property” of spectrum.

Legislation changing Section 230

Lee also spoke on Section 230, a statute that protects online companies from liability for content posted by their users. It’s a hot topic for policymakers right now as they consider regulating social media platforms.

Both Republicans and Democrats want more regulation for tech companies, but for different reasons. Democrats want more moderation against alleged hate speech or other content, citing the January 6 riot at the Capitol as one example of not enough censorship. Republicans on the other hand, including Lee, allege social media companies censor or remove right-leaning political content but do not hold the same standard for left-leaning content.

Lee highlighted that platforms have the right to be as politically-biased as they want, but it’s a problem when their terms of service or CEOs publicly state they are neutral, but then moderate content from a non-neutral standpoint, he said.

Lee expressed hesitation about repealing or changing Section 230. “If you just repealed it altogether, it would give, in my view, an undo advantage to big market incumbents,” he said. One solution is supplementing Section 230 with additional clarifying language or new legislation, he said.

That’s why he came up with the Promise Act, legislation he introduced on February 24 that would require the disclosure of rules for content moderation, and permit the Federal Trade Commission to take corrective action against companies who violate those disclosed rules. “I don’t mean it to be an exclusive solution, but I think it is a reasonably achievable step toward some type of sanity in this area,” he said.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and a couple of her colleagues also drafted Section 230 legislation that would maintain the spirit of the liability provision, but would remove it for paid content.

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