AstroTurf, allies and antitrust: The fighters are about to square off
Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Look, not everyone in Washington is a shill, but big tech companies are quite diligent about paying people who already agree with them. That’s made for some embarrassing stories lately — and a battle over who speaks for consumers that’ll play out next week in Congress. Plus, the latest on the Amazon union votes, and what’s next for Bedoya’s nomination to the FTC.
AstroTurf and antitrust
Tech company allies are due to spend Monday shaking their fists at antitrust reform advocates as both groups increase the pressure on lawmakers in what could be a final push for competition proposals. You can bet both sides will try to claim the mantle of everyday users.
It’s been a bad week for the voices supporting Big Tech that purport to come from the regular public.
- A Washington Post report revealed how a Republican campaign firm helped Meta try to take down TikTok, which included promoting news stories about damaging trends on the service and placing op-eds and letters portraying TikTok as a threat to young people.
- Separate reports in CNBC and POLITICO spilled how several supposed members of a small business group that routinely supports Big Tech had never even heard of the organization.
- These aren’t just gossipy stories about which consultants are collecting Big Tech’s checks: Rather, they highlight how much of the “public” that takes part in tech policy conversations doesn’t actually represent actual grassroots users.
Tech companies and their allies will try to shake that off next week to convince lawmakers that antitrust reform proposals are, in essence, bad for consumers. But a coalition of small and medium-sized tech and actual grassroots groups will be dogging them.
- On Monday, NetChoice, the self-described “most aggressive trade association” in tech, will be leading conservative groups in lawmaker meetings to push back on antitrust bills including Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s American Innovation and Choice Online Act.
- Also on Monday, digital rights group Fight for the Future is coordinating its own “Day of Action” alongside consumer groups and companies such as DuckDuckGo, Spotify and Yelp. They’re urging honest-to-goodness people to tell lawmakers what users want.
- “It really is transparently a bit of a ragtag band,” said Evan Greer, Fight for the Future’s director. “This is like the rest of the internet rising up together to knock the kings and queens of Silicon Valley off their thrones a little bit.”
If all of this sounds a bit familiar, well, thanks for reading.
- I wrote a few weeks ago about how, during the first great tech policy battle a decade ago, Greer’s organization essentially reversed the Washington consensus in favor of a pair of copyright bills by getting them in front of millions of regular people who then yelled at Congress. (She was then key to organizing in favor of net neutrality.)
- Back then, Google placed a call to action on its homepage, but behind closed doors, it was skeptical of the movement. It ultimately tried to manufacture grassroots excitement by managing “outside” voices like the phony small business group that got exposed this week.
- Instead, this coming Monday, a call to action will be on DuckDuckGo’s homepage.
Everyone agrees, by the way, that if changes to competition law are going to pass this year, the final push needs to start now.
- “Part of the value of these is you can’t really fake them,” Greer said of the effort, celebrating that the coalition includes self-interested business rivals to Big Tech. Greer added that members are forthright about what they want and are aligning with the bipartisan public skepticism of Big Tech’s power.
- Tech companies, on the other hand, routinely argue that however much they’ve been made into political boogeymen, the bills would raise prices, compromise privacy and degrade some of the most popular services the world has ever known.
Each side insists it's on track to win. My own take is that rank-and-file members of Congress who haven’t been living and breathing tech policy are still figuring out what they think. What’s doable, meanwhile, is as much a product of political consensus as it is the calendar. It would seem past time, then, for the public to have its say.— Ben Brody (email | twitter)
The Biden administration will use the Defense Production Act to increase the output of key minerals used in batteries and electric vehicles. The DPA requires companies to prioritize federal contracts as a response to national emergencies. The goal is to reduce “reliance on China,” although Russia’s war in Ukraine has also caused price hikes.
The Senate “discharged” the nomination of Alvaro Bedoya to the FTC — an extra step that’s necessary because the Commerce Committee deadlocked on advancing Bedoya to the floor. Vice President Kamala Harris had to cast a tiebreaker vote for the discharge, which now tees up a full confirmation vote. Bedoya, whose focus on privacy disappointed some Republicans who hoped he’d vocally tout their efforts to crack down on the companies through antitrust, is expected to face slim margins again.
The DOJ’s antitrust chief, Jonathan Kanter, wants to stop more mergers, according to Bloomberg, and he keeps a poster in his office with the words “Ass Kicking Is On My Mind.”
The House Oversight and Reform Committee launched an investigation into reports that Amazon required workers to continue working during a deadly tornado. In December, six workers died at an Amazon facility in Illinois that collapsed in the storm. One delivery driver received a text message from her supervisor telling her to “keep delivering … We can’t just call people back for a warning unless Amazon tells us to.” Amazon claims the subcontractor didn’t follow safety protocols.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is worried about El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment. The committee passed the Accountability for Cryptocurrency in El Salvador Act with bipartisan support. The bill asks the State Department to explore risks and draft contingency plans related to El Salvador’s bitcoin experiment. Sen. Bill Cassidy expressed concerns that it “opens the door for money-laundering cartels and undermines U.S. interests.” Leaders in El Salvador will surely take the Senate’s concern as a sign of success, considering the experiment was intended to gain autonomy from the U.S.-centric international finance system.
Rep. Ken Buck, the House Republican who co-led the push for tech antitrust bills, is bullish on Congress passing measures to block Big Tech self-preferencing, re-make app stores and reform filing fees for mergers. He thinks interoperability mandates will have to wait for another day, though.
A group of senators led by Elizabeth Warren wants the FTC to zero in on the possible effects of Microsoft’s Activision Blizzard acquisition on workers. The agency is already expected to give the deal a tougher look than enforcers might have in the past.The House Oversight and Reform Committee is expected to question senior U.S. Postal Service leaders on the lack of EV delivery trucks in its $11.3 billion order with Oshkosh Defense. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy placed an initial order for 50,000 delivery vehicles, of which 20% were EVs. The hearing will take place April 5.
In the states
In a labor victory that was once almost unthinkable, Amazon workers at a warehouse in New York voted to unionize — the first time any of the company's employees have done so in the U.S. Amazon can file objections before the result is legally certified. The company is due to face another vote at a facility nearby, soon but it appears to winning again in a second labor vote at a warehouse in Alabama.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed the Silenced No More Act into law, making the state the second after California to prevent business from imposing NDAs that bar workers from discussing certain kinds of illegal harrassment and discrimination.
Apple is lobbying against anti-LGBTQ legislation in Iowa, Florida, Texas and at least six other states, according to POLITICO. Apple has encouraged other Fortune 500 companies to join its efforts, and has helped organize 60 corporate sponsors for a public statement condemning the Texas legislation targeting transgender youth. Some Republicans have pushed back against Apple’s initiative, threatening to pull subsidies the company receives.
A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP
If you’re a CEO these days, odds are that your CIO understands something you may not: your company’s cybersecurity strategy is fundamentally flawed, and has been ever since your organization began using cloud-based services.
Justin E. H. Smith, a professor of history and philosophy of science, argues that the internet as we know it is addictive and undemocratic, and that algorithms tend to impoverish lives. He told Protocol all about why he thinks of social media as a “debate-themed video game.”
Europe’s coming landmark competition rules for tech will require interoperability for messaging apps. What that means for end-to-end encryption, data storage and even emoji usage is far from clear, though.
FTX and Ripple are advocating for the CFTC, not the SEC, to spearhead crypto regulation. The SEC under Gary Gensler hasn’t won many friends in the crypto space, particularly as it’s dished out frequent information requests and enforcement actions. Cue the agency proxy war.Wouldn’t it be nice to solve the climate crisis with a couple of ships and some industrial vacuums sucking up minerals needed for batteries from the seafloor? The reality of deep-sea mining could be vastly more destructive, though, and an obscure U.N. body headquartered in Jamaica with the slightly “Lost”-ish name of the International Seabed Authority has to figure this all out.
Around the world
The Treasury Department rolled out a fresh wave of sanctions targeting Russia’s tech sector. The sanctions are directed at 21 entities and 13 individuals
The EU Parliament passed crypto regulation on Thursday that would require centralized exchanges to give the government customer information on anyone who received 1,000 or more euros from a self-hosted wallet. Coinbase founder Brian Armstrong called the legislation “anti-innovation, anti-privacy, and anti-law enforcement” in an angry tweet.The EU is looking to update core competition rules that have been used to go after Big Tech. European Commission Executive Vice President Margrethe Vestager called the regulation the “central plank of our antitrust enforcement framework,” and added that the update would make the rules more efficient. The changes would likely change procedures for requesting information, dawn raids and oral testimonies, according to Reuters.
Six months: That’s how long Meta engineers have been seeing intermittent spikes of up to 30% in harmful content, according to a report in The Verge. The company’s algorithms should have been demoting the material.
A MESSAGE FROM HASHICORP
As a business leader, you need to understand that zero-trust is not just another buzzword. It’s a fundamentally different mindset that you will need to embrace — and the sooner you do so, the better.
I didn't forget!
Yes, it’s April Fools’ Day. Go enjoy the rare 24 hours when the Very Online know not to get too upset about what they read, and the normies try out their skepticism muscles.
Thanks for reading — see you Monday!