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Big Tech's Congressional circus rolls on

A ringleader in a circus

Good morning, and happy spooky season! This Friday, Congress' response to Big Tech continues to underwhelm, Rohit Chopra will be the CFPB's new boss, and Instacart workers are planning to strike later this month.

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The Big Story

Oh what a circus, oh what a show

Senators hauled in a Facebook executive, Antigone Davis, yesterday to answer for damaging reports about Instagram's effect on teens' mental health. And no, Davis wasn't the executive they screamed at last week about the reports, or the as-yet-unnamed company whistleblower they'll bring in to help them yell next week.

Congressional response to Big Tech has become a repetitive political farce, rather than helping advance lawmakers' understanding so they can fix things. And yesterday's hearing is the latest proof.

  • For years, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been monologuing that they're fed up with tech and about to regulate — but they never have.
  • Right on cue, Sen. Roger Wicker even echoed a bipartisan call for privacy legislation, declaring: "We are serious about taking action."

Hearings these days tend to take a traditional form of Congress hauling some executive to the Hill to yell at them. What lawmakers leave behind often enough is not understanding, but a video clip, ready to go viral, of their indignant performance with a Silicon Valley fat cat.

  • At one point, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who led the hearing, urged Davis to "commit to ending 'finsta,'" implying fake alternate accounts for teens are a company offering, rather than something that all kinds of users do to get around the watchful eyes of parents, teachers, bosses, etc.
  • At another moment, while Davis answered questions from Sen. Ted Cruz about possible teen suicides, she said she'd lost a brother and close friend to suicide, but Cruz just admonished her for not answering the rest of his question.

Americans deeply distrust and dislike Congress, and while there are many serious lawmakers, including at the hearing, some see their job as running for reelection and avoiding votes that could end up in attack ads.

  • The only upside of getting really tough would be the regulation of a powerful industry, whose lobbyists have piles of money for ads accusing lawmakers of killing jobs.
  • Meanwhile, however worthy of "Les Misérables" or "Hamilton" these confrontations may be, they likely won't stop the flow of donations that tech companies make to incumbents with the power to regulate businesses.
  • And even when lawmakers do want to pass something, one side is usually willing to wait on the hope it'll gain seats — and thus leverage for its position — in the next election.

Sure, some things did happen at the hearing, including the reintroduction of a bill to protect the privacy of kids and teens online. Lawmakers also got Davis to promise Facebook wouldn't retaliate against the whistleblower for speaking to Congress, although as my colleague Issie Lapowsky points out, Davis pretty clearly didn't address consequences for an upcoming "60 Minutes" interview with the insider or what appears to be the taking of company documents.

  • Transparency seemed to be the senators' modest goal, although Davis avoided committing to the release of additional company research beyond the two pieces it had put out Wednesday evening, which had informed blockbuster Wall Street Journal reports.
  • Davis spent most of her time insisting the company cares and can be good for young users. She hinted Facebook could institute "nudges toward uplifting content" and reminders for users to take a break — but she left plenty of room to back out.

But hearings weren't always like this. Really! While Facebook's Cambridge Analytica scandal prompted hearings with Mark Zuckerberg that made some members of Congress look hopelessly out of touch, the Senate Commerce Committee's hearing series that followed had to be spread out across several months in 2018 and 2019, so many perspectives did lawmakers bring in.

  • Yet it came to nothing: The deep partisan acrimony and leveraging of tech policy for political gain in the last two years of the Trump administration made it almost impossible to hold substantive hearings and come to compromise — especially as the companies' repeated fumbles on COVID misinformation and violent political lies mean Congress is constantly shifting its focus.
  • Meanwhile, much of what Washington wants to tackle might not even fix public complaints.

Today it seems ludicrous to take lawmakers at their word when they say Congress is ready to change how tech does business. So far, lawmakers have taken every opportunity to prove the doubters right — and they'll have to get down off the stage and roll up the sleeves of their costumes if they want to do any more.

— Ben Brody (email | twitter)

Protocol event

Is there innovation left in smartphones?

Smartphones are the most important device in modern life. But over the last few years, it feels like not much has changed, and as if the industry has instead moved toward wearables, AR glasses and whatever else comes next.

Are smartphones really over, though? Join Protocol's David Pierce for a conversation about the future of the smartphone with Drew Blackard, vice president of mobile product management at Samsung, and Christina Cyr, CEO of The Cyrcle Phone at 10 a.m. PT/1 p.m. ET on Tuesday.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIP MORRIS INTERNATIONAL

By scrutinizing facts and including all voices, we can achieve public consensus faster and take well-informed collective action against the many challenges our world is facing. Embracing facts, new technologies, and science is our shared responsibility and the least we can do to drive positive change for the world.

Learn more

People Are Talking

A bunch of anonymous workers, and ex-employee Alexandra Abrams, say Blue Origin's workplace is toxic:

  • "A common question during high-level meetings was, 'When will Elon or Branson fly?' Competing with other billionaires — and 'making progress for Jeff' — seemed to take precedence over safety concerns that would have slowed down the schedule."
  • The company defended its workplace environment.

In another plea to overturn a $5 billion fine, Google lawyer Genevra Forwood said the company never meant to hurt competitors:

  • "It was wrong for the Commission to impose any fine at all, let alone turn up the dials to reach its biggest fine ever."

The U.S. and EU can work better together on tech issues, Antony Blinken said:

  • "The fact of the matter is we will know and see and pick up things our partners don't. Similarly, they will know and see and pick up things that we don't."

The chip crisis is changing customer orders by the day, said Peter Anthony, who leads a Chicago-area supplier:

  • "It's a total crapshoot."

Making Moves

Laura Miele is Electronic Arts' new COO. She's been with the company for years and most recently led more than 20 game studios.

Rohit Chopra will lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The tech critic's approval puts the trade commission in a political tie.

David Swain joined Strava as VP of content strategy. Swain was Instagram's first head of global communications.

Tigran Gambaryan is heading to Binance as VP of global intelligence and investigations. Gambaryan is a former IRS special agent who's investigated a few big cases, including one on Silk Road.

Jeff Clementz is Shift's new president. He most recently led Walmart's U.S. ecommerce marketplace business.

Leela Srinivasan and Kerry Van Voris are joining Checkout.com as CMO and HR head, respectively. Its CEO also said the plan is to IPO, but potentially after it's raised more funding.

Workhorse's leadership is reshuffling. CFO Steve Schrader and COO Rob Willison left, and both Jim Harrington and Josh Anderson joined the company as chief administrative officer and CTO, respectively.

In Other News

  • Instacart gig workers are planning a strike for later this month. A group of shoppers is logging off the app and pushing for a set of demands, like base pay for each order and occupational death benefits.
  • Zoom dropped its $14.7 billion Five9 acquisition plan. Five9 shareholders voted against it, the Department of Justice was investigating, and now it sounds like Zoom's going to build more of that tech internally.
  • On Protocol | Enterprise: What will Salesforce be after Benioff? The company's culture is so unusual and so widely felt inside the company, and with a fast-changing future of work, a new toy in Slack, and a post-Benioff world coming someday, it'll be hard to maintain.
  • YouTube TV users, good news: NBCUniversal's channels won't be leaving after all. At least not yet. The companies agreed to "a short extension while parties continue talks."
  • A ransomware attack allegedly led to a baby's death. A mother is suing the hospital where her child was born, claiming computer outages from a cyberattack prevented staff from finding troubling signs in the baby. The hospital denies the allegations.
  • Ex-OnlyFans staff could view company data after their exit, sources told Vice. Some former employees could still access customer service software the company used, allowing them to see personal data like credit card information and passports.
  • Airbnb isn't pleased with its diversity data. The percentages of people who identify as an underrepresented minority in leadership and technical roles at the company have ticked up only a little since 2019.
  • TikTok wants in on NFTs. The platform is releasing an NFT collection called "TikTok Top Moments," which will involve a handful of creators, including Lil Nas X.
  • Lawmakers' social media and politics go hand in hand, according to a Pew Research Center report. The researchers found that everything from the words members of Congress search to the links they share reflect their political leanings.

One More Thing

Weekends are for streaming

It's the first day of October, which means you have every reason to bake an apple cider donut, sit on the couch and watch TV all weekend long. Here's some inspiration for what you can watch:

  • Something informative: If you haven't gotten around to watching Netflix's docuseries on the Inspiration4 mission last month, you can binge all of them in a few hours. The final episode of the series came out yesterday, showing the crew lifting off from the Kennedy Space Center.
  • Something fun: The "Addams Family 2" is out today! The sequel centers around a haunted family vacation, and you can watch it in the theater or on demand at home.
  • Something serious: This isn't really something you would snuggle up to (well, maybe some of you would), but Facebook's whistleblower is going on "60 Minutes" this Sunday. That gives you just enough time to learn about what happened straight from the source before their Senate testimony next week.

A MESSAGE FROM PHILIP MORRIS INTERNATIONAL

By scrutinizing facts and including all voices, we can achieve public consensus faster and take well-informed collective action against the many challenges our world is facing. Embracing facts, new technologies, and science is our shared responsibility and the least we can do to drive positive change for the world.

Learn more

Thoughts, questions, tips? Send them to sourcecode@protocol.com, or our tips line, tips@protocol.com. Enjoy your day, see you Sunday.

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