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FCC Commissioner Carr Says Big Tech Has Too Much Power To Determine What Information Is Seen

Brendan Carr said Big Tech can make critical decisions on who sees what on the internet.

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FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr

May 26, 2021—Federal Communications Commissioner Brendan Carr said Tuesday that he’s concerned about the power of big tech to being able to remove applications like controversial chat website Parler.

The app, which is used by supporters of former President Donald Trump but has fostered an environment of hate-speech, was removed from the Apple and Google app stores in light of the Capitol riot of January 6. The platforms gave the app time to deal with its policies on those matters.

Carr said at a virtual event hosted by The Heritage Foundation that when technology companies have the power to pick and choose what to remove, it creates inherent biases and promotes an echo chamber, where Americans only hear one side of matter. He said there must be a push to promote more diverse opinions.

He noted that the big technology companies often point to their algorithms when called to account for “inconsistent content moderation and account suspension.” Facebook, for example, has said it removes thousands of groups and accounts, which often promote violence, from its platform regularly.

Carr noted the example of a New York Post article written about Hunter Biden’s dealings with Ukraine, the merits of which were dismissed and the story allegedly suppressed by big tech platforms.

“Big tech companies have been given too much power,” Carr said.

Reporter Sophie Draayer, a native Las Vegan, studied strategic communication and political science at the University of Utah. In her free time, she plays mahjong, learns new songs on the guitar, and binge-watches true-crime docuseries on Netflix.

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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Antitrust

American Innovation and Choice Online Act Advances to Senate Floor With Bipartisan Alliance

Klobuchar was able to rally Democrats and Republicans to support her bill, but its future depends upon a shaky alliance.

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Sen. Amy Klobuchar

WASHINGTON, January 21, 2022 – Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee have formed a tenuous, bipartisan alliance to curb allegedly anticompetitive behavior by large tech companies.

During a Thursday markup, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 16-6 to send the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, S. 2992, to the Senate floor. The bill would prohibit certain companies with online platforms from engaging in behavior that discriminates against their competitors.

There is a laundry list of violations and unlawful behaviors enumerated in the bill, including unfairly preferencing products, limiting another business’ ability to operate on a platform, or discriminating against competing products and services.

This bill would only apply to companies with online platforms that meet one of the following criteria:

  • Has at least 50,000,000 United States-based monthly active users on the online platform or 100,000 United States-based monthly active business users on the online platform
  • Is owned or controlled by a person with United States net annual sales or a market capitalization greater than $550,000,000,000, adjusted for inflation on the basis of the Consumer Price Index and is a critical trading partner for the sale or provision of any product or service offered on or directly related to the online platform

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., the sponsor of the bill, referred to the bipartisan effort as “the Ocean’s 11 of co-sponsors,” featuring a diverse line-up of legislators, from Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Miss., and Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., to Sen. Dick Durban, D-Ill., and Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Senators embrace specific and direct targeting of Big Tech

Klobuchar spoke directly about the need to target large companies, “We have to look at this differently that just startup in a garage – that is not what they are anymore. They may have started small, but they are [now] dominant platforms,” she said. “For the first time, the monopoly power is going to be challenged in what I consider to be a smart way.”

At the outset of the meeting, there were more than 100 amendments proposed by members of the committee, but by its conclusion, more than 80 of them had been withdrawn.

One of the amendments that worked its way into the bill was a markup that exempted subscription-based services from complying with the legislation, allowing services like Amazon Prime and Netflix to promote their own content above others’.

“The bill strikes the right balance between preventing the conduct that hurts competition, while also ensuring that platforms can continue to provide privacy and data security features to their users, compete against rivals in the United States and abroad, and maintain services that benefit consumers,” Klobuchar said.

A fragile alliance between read-meat Republicans and progressive Democrats

Though there were big names on both sides of the aisle supporting the bill, the alliance seemed fraught. Despite being supportive of the bill, Kennedy made it clear that his support was conditional. “I am a co-sponsor of this bill, but this bill is going to change – it is going to change dramatically,” he said. “I hope to be in the room when those changes are made, otherwise I will be off this bill faster than you can say ‘Big Tech.’”

Some of Kennedy’s criticisms harkened back to Section 230 issues raised by former President Donald Trump – calling some of the targeted companies “killing fields for the truth,” and stating that “their censorship is a threat to the first amendment.”

Despite his criticisms, Kennedy echoed other senators, both Republican and Democrat, who emphasized that they did not want the perfect to become the enemy of the good. “All we have done [for five years] is strut around, issue press releases, hold hearings, and do nothing. So, this is a start.”

Klobuchar also received push-back from members of her own party, with Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., stating that she was critical of the bill because it is designed to specifically target large tech companies, many of which are based out of California (though she ultimately voted to advance the bill to the Senate floor).

Hawley rebuffed Feinstein in his comments, stating that he supports the bill for the same reason Feinstein refuses to. “[Feinstein] pointed out – I think rightly – that this bill is very specific and does target specific behavior – anti-competitive behavior – in a specific set of markets. I think that that’s a virtue and not a vice.”

The measure must be passed by the full Senate, as well as the House, before it goes to the president for his signature.

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