Rep. Ro Khanna
Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

Ro Khanna thinks Congress needs a tech boot camp

Protocol Policy

Hello, and welcome to Protocol Policy! The war in Ukraine, like COVID-19 before it, has made once-unthinkable ideas suddenly mainstream in Washington. I asked Silicon Valley’s congressman what that means for tech regulation. Plus, the SEC probing NFTs, Musk’s latest sniping at Biden, and Sohn and Bedoya moving forward oh-so-slowly.

‘Silicon Valley front and center’

Since getting to Congress in 2017, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who represents the heart of Silicon Valley, has developed a reputation for showing up everywhere. Sure, he has a knack for courting news coverage, but well, tech is actually everywhere. So when he called me yesterday, Khanna talked about everything from Ukraine and President Biden’s tech-y State of the Union to kids online and his colleagues’ savviness on AI.

Tech platforms’ actions to curb official Russian propaganda about the war in Ukraine are getting begrudging thumbs-ups from lawmakers, Khanna said, but Congress wants more on other kinds of misinformation.

  • “There’s still a lot of skepticism of a lot of misinformation on these platforms in general, but on this issue, I think there’s appreciation that they’re doing the right thing,” Khanna said.
  • Lawmakers “recognize that there can’t be election misinformation, or things causing anxiety and depression among teenagers.”

Speaking of kids online, Khanna called the issue “low-hanging fruit” because of its bipartisan appeal and Biden’s urging it along.

  • Khanna teased that he’s working with Sen. Richard Blumenthal and others on relevant legislation.
  • Blumenthal’s Kids Act, which would require tech platforms to do more to mitigate online harms to kids, needs a House companion bill, for instance.
  • Khanna said the FTC should be regulating sites when anyone under 18 is using them “if they’re causing anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts.” (The Senate bill goes up to 16.)

He also said kids under 13 “shouldn’t be on these sites and having data collected.”

  • To get there, he suggested much higher legal obligations for online services, including social media sites and apps, that right now can pretty much stay in compliance with the law by just turning a blind eye to users under 13.
  • He also lamented that, despite the popularity of the issue, it’s moving slowly: “The key is we gotta move these out of committee. These things can get stuck.”

It’s probably going to be Memorial Day before Congress can deliver on Biden’s call for a unified bill from the House and Senate containing $52 billion in chips provisions, Khanna estimated.

  • Khanna is “very confident” the core funding for semiconductor manufacturing, as well as the broader spending on tech R&D, will be going to the president’s desk.
  • As the rest of the odds and ends are negotiated, the filibuster may give the Senate’s approach, which is more specific about the kinds of research it wants to fund, a leg up.
  • “I think we’re trying to figure out how to reconcile the House version with the Senate version and still get 60 Senate votes.”

Khanna was clear that he has “a few” colleagues who are really sharp on artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge issues, but, he said, “We still need more technological competency.”

  • “They have an understanding,” he said. “I think they could have a deeper understanding.”
  • “I’ve often thought I should just invite people to my district for a two-day immersion at these companies and Stanford and [with] tech leaders.”

Khanna said his own role as one of the representatives for Silicon Valley has “become more prominent” since he arrived in Washington.

  • He noted Biden talked about Intel, which is headquartered in Khanna’s district, high up and at great length in Tuesday’s speech.
  • “That’s a big statement of Silicon Valley front and center in the economic life of the country, and [then] the president cited the need to reform social media in our social and democratic life.”

Besides chips, it’s anyone’s guess what lawmakers really have the will — and the time — to do. But Khanna’s probably right that, whatever Congress decides to do about tech, it’s going to affect pretty much everything else.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

In Washington

The SEC is sniffing around creators of certain NFTs and the crypto exchanges they trade on to figure out if the digital assets are being used to raise money like traditional securities.

A Senate committee readied the nominations of Gigi Sohn (for the FCC) and Alvaro Bedoya (for the FTC) for a floor vote. Both have faced bumpy roads, dealing with seemingly unified Republican opposition and the absence of Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján after his stroke. Both nominees received tied 14-14 votes, so their confirmations will require extra steps on the floor. Republican Sen. Roy Blunt also said he would seek to hold up Bedoya over concerns about the FTC’s analysis of, and responsiveness about, an agricultural acquisition in his state.

How is the Treasury Department ensuring that cryptocurrencies are not used to sidestep sanctions on Russia? That’s what a group of Senate Democrats led by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Mark Warner demanded to know in a recent letter.

Warren also suggested Amazon’s attendance policy “may not be in compliance with federal laws protecting workers’ rights to take time off without punishment” in another letter. She and her co-authors, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, urged the Department of Labor to investigate.

Senate Republican staff got briefed on tech gatekeeper issues on Thursday as antitrust bills start heading to the floor, according to several people familiar with the session. Apple, Roku, the conservative Heritage Foundation (which has begun dabbling on competition reform) and the tech trade group NetChoice attended.

The surgeon general is demanding information from Big Tech on COVID-19 misinformation, including data about “exactly how many users saw or may have been exposed” to it.

In the states

TikTok is officially the subject of a multistate probe, according to Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey. The investigation is looking into whether the app is being designed or operated “in a manner that causes or exacerbates physical and mental health harms” to young users.

The Justice Department is reportedly prepared to bring out the big guns — in the form of criminal charges, not just civil suits — in monopolization cases, according to a top official. The DOJ official, Richard Powers, was addressing an American Bar Association conference in San Francisco. Really, though, he could be talking about any industry, right?

Washington, the home of Amazon and Microsoft, became the second state to pass the Silenced No More Act. Inspired by the experiences of tech workers, the measure bars employers in the state from using NDAs to prevent workers from talking about discrimination, sexual assault, harassment, wage violations and more.


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In the courts

Meta and the FTC won’t have their day in court for at least two years, maybe more.

The McFlurry is definitely tech: In something of a right-to-repair proxy fight, a startup that sought to help McDonald’s franchisees fix soft-serve machines with a smartphone is suing the fast-food corporation. Kytch alleges that headquarters interfered with its contracts.

On Protocol

We’re keeping track of all the many, many ways that tech companies are cutting ties with Russia and trying to help Ukrainians, including:

Russian tech giant Yandex has a handshake deal with the authorities to keep critical coverage off its homepage, the company’s former head of News told me. He said it’s keeping millions of Russians from knowing the truth about the war, and he urged his old colleagues to break the informal agreement.

In the media, culture and metaverse

TikTok is developing a policy to label state media, according to The Washington Post. The Chinese-owned app has tried to keep out of the war in Ukraine (and other political and international tensions that its corporate parent wants to avoid) but the pressure became too great as other platforms moved to address Russian propaganda.

Elon Musk is big mad at being left out of the EVs talk in Biden’s State of the Union.

Beijing is as annoyed with pop-ups and push alerts as you are, although its new draft regulations on the topic are going to put even more pressure on news outlets.


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Crash ahead, use alternate moon

Part of a rocket apparently hit the moon going very fast this morning. It’s making me giggle imagining road flares and orange traffic cones covered in lunar dust, but to better adults, it raises serious questions about space junk.

Thanks for reading — see you Monday!

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