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Data brokers just stumbled under the regulatory microscope

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! Today, we look at how data brokers stumbled into a regulatory nightmare — and what they could have done to avoid it. Another whistleblower came forward from Meta, this time alleging the company intentionally allowed for the removal of health care pages in Australia. And California joined the crypto state regulation party with Newsom’s executive order.

A data broker reckoning

Data brokers have always traded in our information. But following the explosive Supreme Court leak, the industry has come under fire for harvesting a specific subset of data in abortion clinic visits.

  • On Tuesday, Motherboard reported that SafeGraph sold data disclosing abortion clinic visit location information. The anonymized data included timestamps and the duration of the visit.
  • SafeGraph then said it would remove any data related to family-planning facilities, and that it had no evidence the data had been used maliciously.
  • On Wednesday, SafeGraph CEO Auren Hoffman told Protocol, “I think it's good that we were called out” in regards to the clinic data.
  • The very next day, Motherboard found another data broker,, offering up data that could be used to identify those visiting Planned Parenthood clinics. The company removed the sensitive data from its service after being contacted. Follow-up reporting by The Markup showed the heatmaps could be used to trace clinic visitors to specific homes, in some cases.

The companies say they weren’t going out of their way to sell clinic data — but that’s disturbing in its own right. Data brokers constantly collect sensitive personal information on just about everything we do.

  • The Crisis Text Line, a suicide prevention hotline, was sharing anonymized data with its for-profit partner company, POLITICO found earlier this year.
  • Period trackers are notoriously leaky with data. One such app, Flo, settled with the FTC after it shared user data with Facebook and Google for marketing purposes.

Politicians are already calling for action. Sen. Ron Wyden, who proposes tighter regulation around data privacy, seized the opportunity to call for legislation.

  • “The dangers of unfettered access to Americans' personal data have never been more clear,” Wyden said in the wake of the news.
  • Wyden also advocated for passing his Fourth Amendment is Not For Sale Act, co-sponsored by Sens. Rand Paul, Bernie Sanders and more than a dozen others, which would stop U.S. law enforcement from circumventing warrant requirements by obtaining data from brokers.

Regulators and advocates have been calling for privacy legislation for more than a decade, and the volume is only going to go up from here. It’s a bit bewildering that neither SafeGraph nor seemed to see the stories about their data use coming. Of course, I have the benefit of hindsight — but every tech leader right now needs to ask what their company is doing with user data, and what they plan to do in an increasingly complicated future.

— Hirsh Chitkara (email | twitter)

In Washington

Frontier is settling with the FTC and two California county district attorneys for almost $9 million over accusations it “lied about its speeds and ripped off customers by charging high-speed prices for slow service.” The company will have to provide the advertised service for new or upgrading customers and provide for free cancellation, among other provisions.

Officials from Visa and Mastercard tried to convince the Senate Judiciary Committee that they face plenty of competition. In particular, the payment providers honed in on fintech companies as their competition. Sen. Ron Wyden didn’t buy it, dubbing it an “apples and oranges” comparison.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren wants to know what the heck Fidelity is thinking by letting people put bitcoin in their 401(k)s. Warren and fellow Democratic Sen. Tina Smith told the company in a letter that “investing in cryptocurrencies is a risky and speculative gamble,” and cited bitcoin’s “particularly volatile history.” Fidelity responded that it wanted “to responsibly provide access.”

The FTC is opening an investigation into Sony’s proposed $3.6 billion acquisition of Bungie. For the company behind PlayStation, Bungie would help build an enticing game library that would lure subscribers away from Microsoft’s Game Pass. Speaking of which, the FTC is also examining Microsoft’s $69 billion bid to acquire Activision.

In the states

California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order on crypto that outlines seven priorities, most of which seem like they were ripped off of a “Next Steps” slide from an MBA class project (e.g., “collect feedback from a broad range of stakeholders.”) The move does however signal California’s desire to more actively insert itself in the crypto regulation conversation. Much of the action so far has taken place in New York.

Internet providers withdrew their lawsuit to stop California’s net neutrality law after three losses in federal court.

The Republican attorneys general of Louisiana and Missouri sued President Biden and other federal officials, including Dr. Anthony Fauci and Nina Jankowicz, claiming they “colluded” with social media companies to silence conservatives. Various plaintiffs — including President Trump — have tried to argue platforms’ content moderation policies are actually controlled by the government, so their actions might be considered unconstitutional censorship. It’s proven pretty futile so far.


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On Protocol

CrowdTangle — one of Big Tech’s best transparency tools — is quietly dying. Company founder Brandon Silverman explained to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Wednesday that companies feel that they aren’t getting credit for transparency initiatives in the public eye.

Privacy experts are concerned the government could require period-tracking apps to share user information in a post-Roe world.

An untimely investigation by the Commerce Department may have caused Indiana utility NiSource to delay its transition to solar. NiSource said it had to delay scheduled coal plant retirements from 2023 to 2025 due to “uncertainty” in the solar markets. In March, the Commerce Department launched an investigation into solar companies based in Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam to determine whether they were being unfairly propped up by China.

Protocol has a visualization of tech headquarters by U.S. state that shows which are located in places where abortion restrictions may come into effect if Roe were overturned.

Around the world

A whistleblower claims Meta intentionally took down pages for hospitals and emergency services in Australiaas part of an effort to gain leverage in negotiations, the Wall Street Journal reports. Meta reportedly wanted the leverage as the Australian Parliament considered a law that would require social media platforms to pay news outlets for content.

Binance won regulatory approval to operate in France. The company has been on a streak of regulatory victories — after experiencing early difficulties, particularly in Europe — winning licenses to operate in Bahrain, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

The U.K. government presented its plan to give the Digital Markets Unit statutory powers for enforcing “pro-competition rules,” allowing consumers to switch between social media platforms or smartphone operating systems without losing their data.

In the media, culture and metaverse

To finance his Twitter acquisition, Elon Musk secured funding from Larry Ellison, Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Strauss Capital, Brookfield and Baron Capital's Bamco. The financing round isn’t complete, and Musk is reportedly in talks with the likes of Jack Dorsey to contribute to the cause.

Microsoft is helping Epic Games skirt its Apple App Store ban with Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming beta. Apple booted Epic’s Fortnite from the App Store back in August 2020 as part of the fallout from their highly contentious legal battle. Apple likely won’t be happy with the workaround to its 30% commission on digital goods, but it also faces mounting scrutiny of the practice around the world.

In data

$1.1 billion: That’s how much Kleiner Perkins chairman John Doerr gifted Stanford to fund the launch of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability. Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne said the school would “absolutely focus on policy issues and on asking what would it take to move the world toward more sustainable practices and better behaviors.”


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Location, location, lobbying, location

Have you ever experienced a Chicago winter? If so, you’ll probably empathize with Boeing’s decision to move its headquarters from Chicago to Arlington, Virginia. Of course, the decision probably had much more to do with power and influence: Boeing is one of the world’s largest defense contractors, and the move to Arlington, where it already has a significant presence just down the street from Amazon’s new HQ2, puts it a stone's throw away from all the organizations that decide whether Poland needs seven or eight F-15s.

Thanks for reading — see you Monday!

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