The Technology 202: Google returns to the hot seat on antitrust as Justice Department case looms

The Technology 202: Google returns to the hot seat on antitrust as Justice Department case looms

Googles broad ad empire – which is also reportedly a key focus of the Justice Department’s ongoing probe – will be under the spotlight. 

Google’s mergers and acquisitions chief, Donald Harrison, will testify that advertising allows it to provide nearly all of its services free to consumers, even as the tech giant faces an onslaught of criticism from rivals. Competitors contend Google has too much power over online advertising because it controls both the infrastructure for selling ads and some of the main platforms on which they’re placed.

“Any discussion of online advertising would be incomplete without mentioning the importance of advertising in supporting a free and open Internet,” Harrison wrote in his prepared remarks to the Republican-controlled committee, less than two months after the companys chief executive Sundar Pichai appeared at a blockbuster House antitrust hearing with the leaders of Amazon, Facebook and Apple. 

The hearing could provide a key look at where Republicans stand on enforcing antitrust laws in the tech industry. 

Today’s hearing could drum up political support for the Justice Department case, while also providing insight into where Republicans stand on enforcing antitrust laws against the tech industry more broadly. Republicans have traditionally been wary of a heavy-handed approach to regulating businesses, but criticism of the tech giants – especially Google – has significantly escalated during the Trump era.

Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), the antitrust subcommittees chairman, has been critical of the Justice Department and Federal Trade Commission’s handling of antitrust probes, and he’s questioned whether two separate government agencies should be tasked with antitrust oversight. Meanwhile, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), the committee’s top Democrat, has called for legislation that would strengthen those agencies. 

Lee may use today’s hearing to revive claims that tech companies are biased against conservatives. 

Lee recently wrote letters to several tech companies, including Google’s parent Alphabet, accusing them of being biased against conservatives. But there is little evidence backing up these claims, and the tech companies including Google have strongly denied them. 

“I view your heavy-handed censorship as a sign of exactly the sort of degraded quality one expects from a monopolist,” he wrote in a letter to tech companies, including Google’s parent company, Alphabet, this summer. “In any other business, you would never dream of treating your customers the way you treat those with views you don’t like. That is, unless you know your customers have no other serious options.”

In a response to Lee’s letter, Google said it applies “our policies to all content creators across the board and will not allow any form of political bias.”

The lawmakers will also hear from some of Google’s top critics and allies. 

The witness list includes NetChoice, an industry trade association that has published a paper defending Google against claims that it has monopoly power. Lawmakers will also hear from a representative from the Omidyar Network, an investment firm backed by the founder of eBay that has published research highlighting monopoly power in the industry. The executive of ad-tech start-up Chalice will also testify. 

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A memo from a fired Facebook employee accused the social network of failing to act on evidence that fake accounts were undermining elections around the globe. 

Former data scientist Sophie Zhang detailed numerous specific instances in which Facebook either ignored or was slow to address the campaigns in a more than 6,000-word internal memo obtained by Elizabeth Dwoskin. The memo was first reported by BuzzFeed News.

The memo includes a breakdown of Zhang’s work, including revelations of inauthentic coordinated campaigns by political parties in Honduras, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and India to boost their candidates or harass opponents. Many of the networks reported by Zhang were never publicized by Facebook or are still under investigation.

Zhang, a mid-level employee who was at the company just three years, had to make decisions that could affect the outcomes of elections. “Although I made the best decision I could based on the knowledge available at the time, ultimately I was the one who made the decision not to push more or prioritize further in each case, and I know that I have blood on my hands by now,” she wrote.

She also details instances directly involving U.S. elections. In February 2019, Zhang removed activity on a “high-profile U.S. political figure” that NATO flagged. Zhang and her team also removed “10.5 million fake reactions and fans from high-profile politicians in Brazil and the U.S. in the 2018 elections.” Zhang notes that her “limited time meant that, increasingly, difficult decisions had to be made.”

Zhang also noted that the company was more receptive to escalating concerns if the press got involved. “It’s an open secret within the civic integrity space that Facebook’s short-term decisions are largely motivated by PR and the potential for negative attention,” she wrote. 

Zhang was fired for performance reasons but declined a $64,000 severance package, according to the memo. “It’s highly involved work that these teams do as their full-time remit,” Facebook spokesperson Liz Bourgeois said in a statement to BuzzFeed News. “Working against coordinated inauthentic behavior is our priority, but we’re also addressing the problems of spam and fake engagement. We investigate each issue carefully, including those that Ms. Zhang raises before we take action or go out and make claims publicly as a company.” 

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) called on the Treasury Department to reject TikTok’s proposed partnership with Oracle. 

“An ongoing ‘partnership’ that allows for anything other than the full emancipation of the TikTok software from potential Chinese Communist Party control is completely unacceptable, and flatly inconsistent with the President’s Executive Order of August 6,” he wrote in a letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. If that’s not possible, the U.S. government should consider moving forward with a full ban of the app, he says.

It’s unclear if TikTok’s proposal will get approval from the Trump administration. Mnuchin told CNBC yesterday that the administration “had a lot of confidence in both Microsoft and Oracle.” 

“I will just say from our standpoint, we’ll need to make sure that the code is, one, secure, Americans’ data is secure, that the phones are secure and we’ll be looking to have discussions with Oracle over the next few days with our technical teams,” he said.

The Biden campaign launched a new election protection program.

The protection program will counter foreign interference, misinformation and voter suppression efforts, Amy Gardner reports.

“We have an extraordinary national team in place to ensure that every eligible voter is able to exercise their right to vote and have their vote counted,” said Bob Bauer, a longtime Democratic election lawyer who has joined the campaign as a full-time adviser.

The initiative comes as President Trump continues to push unsubstantiated claims on Twitter and Facebook that mail-in voting leads to increased fraud.

In addition, a “national team for special litigation” will include two former solicitors general, Donald Verrilli and Walter Dellinger, as well as the law firm Perkins Coie, where Marc Elias has been leading litigation efforts on behalf of various Democratic committees all year

Former attorney general Eric Holder will also play a role in the effort, the campaign said.

A bug in Joe Biden’s campaign app allowed anyone to access voter files, a researcher found.

The researcher was also able to intercept private data beyond what the public files cover, including gender, home address and ethnicity, Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch reports. The campaign says the app was fixed on Friday. 

“We were made aware about how our third-party app developer was providing additional fields of information from commercially available data that was not needed,” Matt Hill, a spokesperson for the Biden campaign, told TechCrunch. “We worked with our vendor quickly to fix the issue and remove the information. We are committed to protecting the privacy of our staff, volunteers and supporters will always work with our vendors to do so.” Hill disputed that the app exposed information beyond public voter files. 

Rant and rave

The New York Times’s Susan Fowler shared a twisted tale of delivery apps, Internet privacy and spam mail:

Other users shared their own data privacy horror stories:

Privacy monitor

More than 30 civil society groups are urging the U.S. Senate to reject the Earn It Act.

The coalition, led by the Center for Democracy and Technology, says the anti-child exploitation bill will hurt free speech more than it would help crack down on the problem. 

“We warn that the bill will result in online censorship disproportionately impacting marginalized communities, jeopardize access to encrypted services, and risk undermining child abuse prosecutions,” the group writes.

The Earn It Act would strip tech companies of liability protections for what users share on their platforms if they dont follow new rules mandated by a task force created under the bill. The advocates say the law could be used by states to hold tech companies responsible for child sexual abuse and exploitation content, even if the companies were unaware of its presence.

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Daybook

  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing, “Stacking the Tech: Has Google harmed competition in online advertising?” today at 2:30 p.m.
  • Facebook Connect will take place virtually on Wednesday.
  • Future Tense at New America will live-stream the event “How Should We Talk About QAnon?” on Wednesday at noon.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a virtual hearing, “Trump FCC: Four Years of Lost Opportunities,” Thursday at 10 a.m.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine threats to U.S. intellectual property, focusing on cyberattacks and counterfeits during the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

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