The exterior of the US Capitol building
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Tech wants to pull the ol’ switcheroo on Congress

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! You may be hearing a lot about privacy from Big Tech again, but it’s actually about the momentum behind antitrust reform. I’ll explain. Plus, injuries at Amazon warehouses are up, the inside story of labor’s deal with Uber and Lyft, and Yelp’s new coverage for employees seeking abortions.

Privacy past, antitrust prologue

It’s the “Would Pepsi be OK instead?” of tech policy: Companies are telling lawmakers that if Congress wants to do something really good, it’ll forget all this silly competition stuff and go back to focusing on a privacy law.

Smart industry allies know it’s better to redirect lawmakers than refuse them outright.

  • The pleading on privacy is not necessarily a new pivot for Big Tech — it’s just a newly urgent one as antitrust reformers ramp up for what they hope is the final push to pass laws in the U.S.
  • That’s a big part of why Tim Cook, during a speech yesterday in D.C., said competition proposals would undermine privacy and security on Apple products, even as he emphasized that the company really wants “a strong, comprehensive privacy law in the United States.”
  • Meanwhile, tech association NetChoice used its recent visits to Republican senators to emphasize that privacy polls better than antitrust, according to the group’s general counsel Carl Szabo.
  • The group, which includes social media and gig work companies among its membership, focuses on lawmakers on the right, but its rough analog on the left, the Chamber of Progress, is pushing similar surveys.

Privacy really is super important, and genuinely seems to be a top tech concern for voters, but let’s be clear: Companies don’t mean exactly what everyday people do when they say that new privacy law, instead of new competition laws, is a better outcome for the techlash.

  • Companies rarely want a particular set of robust protections for consumers as much as they want an easy compliance checklist that extends nationwide rather than varying by state.
  • And on the other side, consumer groups are already warning that new state privacy laws like Utah’s are lowering the bar for the protections users are getting.
  • Apple, to its credit, recently exited a lobbying group that appeared to be behind some of the diluted state privacy proposals.

Congress isn’t really listening.

  • Sure, privacy is popular, but any change affecting it would require technical expertise and enough time to regulate huge swaths of the economy. That means members of Congress just don’t seem to be putting in the work to make it happen, even as this year’s legislative window is already closing.
  • And while plenty of companies do want the predictability of a national law — so long as they have a lot of say in it — they’re not going to cry too hard if Congress doesn’t actually crack down on them with privacy either.

But meanwhile, a few policymakers in Washington are interested in setting up a “be careful what you wish for” situation for tech.

  • Speaking on Monday to the same conference that Cook addressed, FTC Chair Lina Khan said she wants to tackle the issue through rule-making and putting limits on unspecified data uses.
  • That definitely caused nervous gulping in various tech C-suites: The FTC would almost certainly be less susceptible to industry lobbying for loopholes, more interested in punishment and deeply skeptical that all data practices are cool so long as they’re disclosed.

Khan’s FTC sees a lot of urgent new questions in privacy, even if state laws are sprouting loopholes and lawmakers are twiddling their thumbs.

There’s no telling when Congress might finally take up those issues seriously — let alone come up with answers. But when they do, perhaps tech will wish lawmakers had tackled antitrust after all.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

Progressives working on tech antitrust are mostly willing to partner privately with a conservative anti-trans group to achieve their goals, but some on the left are uneasy about the coalition, according to POLITICO.

Muslim civil rights group CAIR is urging the FTC to crack down on the location-tracking industry as a whole. The group’s petition follows revelations of surreptitious surveillance of users on apps designed primarily for Muslims.

In the states

Injuries at Amazon warehouses accounted for almost half of all such injuries in the U.S. last year, according to a new analysis of federal safety data by a pro-union group. Injuries at Amazon facilities were also up 20% in 2021 compared to the year before.

With abortion rights under intense threat in several states and nationally, Yelp will cover expenses for employees and dependents who need to travel out of state to terminate pregnancies. It joins Apple, Match Group and other companies offering similar coverage.

Thousands of Etsy sellers have closed their storefronts for a week in protest of the company hiking its transaction fee to 6.5% from 5%.

A MESSAGE FROM WORKPLACE FROM META

100% of C-suite staff surveyed by Workplace by Meta said that frontline workers were a strategic priority for their business in 2022, but nearly two in three of them said that keeping their frontline staff, who bear the brunt of the stresses of the workplace most acutely, had only become a priority since the pandemic hit.

Learn more

In the courts

A Twitter shareholder has, inevitably, sued Elon Musk for his belated disclosure of a substantial ownership stake in the company. The complaint alleges that people who sold their stock during the period after Musk should have gone public missed out on the price bump that resulted when the almost-Twitter-director eventually did file the right paperwork.

The CFPB sued TransUnion, alleging the company “deployed digital dark patterns to dupe Americans into subscription plans” after agreeing it would make plans easy to cancel.

T-Mobile allegedly hired a third-party firm to buy back stolen customer data, Motherboard reports. According to unsealed court documents, the third-party firm attempted to pay for exclusive access to the T-Mobile customer data, which could limit its spread. Even though the third-party firm paid the hackers $200,000, the hackers continued to sell the data. Here’s the kicker: One of the companies T-Mobile credited with its response to the hack was Mandiant, which Google agreed to acquire for around $5.4 billion in March.

On Protocol

Here’s the inside story of how unions and labor politicians quietly came together with Uber and Lyft for a backroom deal in Washington state, even as battles over gig worker classification prove bruising, public and expensive elsewhere.

Google has made clear employees who signed concealment clauses can still talk about assault, harassment, discrimination or retaliation they experience at work. The company was wedged between new state laws on the issue and a shareholder proposal that would have required Google to issue a public report studying the impact of the clauses.

Around the world

I asked Lev Gershenzon about image search results on Russia’s Yandex showing the Kyiv suburb of Bucha as lovely and whole, even though it’s the focus of concerns about potential Russian war crimes. Gershenzon, the former head of Yandex News who previously told Protocol about a purported handshake deal over headlines between the company and Putin’s regime, said Yandex has always been slow to index new images, but the issue “can be solved if you really want to.”

Huawei is reportedly pulling back from Russia and telling employees there to go on leave because of the impact of sanctions. Huawei and ZTE together provide up to 60% of Russia’s telecom equipment. Ericsson and Nokia — both of which announced halts to Russian operations earlier this week — provide most of the rest.

Research suggests TikTok’s ban on new uploads in Russia let pro-war content slip through in its early days, and then kept out new revelations about the unfolding horrors in Ukraine.

Microsoft is reportedly ready to make changes to the way it licenses its software for customers that want to run the technology in other cloud environments. The move comes after European competition authorities started digging around. Of course, two decades ago, cases against Microsoft kicked off the modern tech antitrust fights, but in recent years, the enterprise market has largely avoided the ire of enforcers.

In the media, culture and metaverse

The Meta engineer who is trying to help his bosses get around Apple’s anti-tracking measures had some thoughts on Tim Cook’s speech: Ben Savage tweeted the CEO’s remarks were “nakedly self-serving” and “bullshit,” and said Apple should protect users on the iOS level, not via App Store restrictions.

Google autocomplete appears to be prompting searchers who type in prominent transgender people to look up pre-transition photos and names.

In data

Fewer than 10,000 people: That’s the daily audience for CNN+, inside sources told CNBC. If the figures are right, the streaming service may be headed toward Quibi territory. An unnamed CNN executive told Insider that CNN+ had a launch budget of around $250 million. CNN executives originally expected to draw around 2 million U.S. subscribers in the first year. They still have time, but can’t be happy with those launch numbers.

A MESSAGE FROM WORKPLACE FROM META

Businesses are starting to turn to workplace communication tools. Such tools enable frontline workers to feel more connected to the rest of their business, to raise concerns and to provide feedback on potential pain points or points of improvement. By bridging that divide, companies can unlock new savings and efficiencies, and build a business that can last for the long run.

Learn more

Frustration detected

Did your boss schedule a recurring two-hour meeting on Friday at 5 p.m.? Make sure you hide any frustration. Zoom announced a new feature that allows sales meeting hosts to perform post-meeting sentiment analysis. “We’re looking at things like speaker cadence and other factors in the linguistic approach to try to disentangle one speaker from another,” Zoom head of Product Josh Dulberger told Protocol.

Thanks for reading — see you Friday!

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