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The Technology 202: Silicon Valley’s prized legal shield is increasingly in jeopardy as Republicans escalate attacks


Meanwhile, Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee say they’re planning to subpoena Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey in response to the company’s handling of the issue. And Ajit Pai, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, announced that he plans to move forward with an effort to clarify and redefine the scope of Section 230. 

The Washington Post was unable to verify the authenticity of the alleged emails and correspondence published by the New York Post, which Twitter initially said were restricted under the policy against the spread of hacked materials and disclosure of personal information. The company later said the story broke the rules because it included images of personal and private information, such as email addresses. Facebook limited the story’s distribution on its platform. 

The drama could have far-reaching effects beyond Washington in the delicate weeks to come.

The swift backlash – and Twitter’s admission that it was wrong to block links to the story – could provide Republicans with greater ammunition to attack the companies’ content moderation decisions before Nov. 3. The companies, under pressure to take a firmer hand after Russian interference on their platforms during the election four years ago, have extra challenges as the president clings to unfounded claims about mail voting and are preparing for the possibility that candidates might prematurely declare victory because ballots will likely take longer to count this year. 

Republicans are now claiming that in this election, the companies are the meddlers. 

“This is election interference, and we are 19 days out from an election,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), a Judiciary Committee member, told reporters yesterday. “Never before have we seen active censorship of a major press publication with serious allegations of corruption of one of the two candidates for president.”

Cruz said he and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) plan to vote on a subpoena for Dorsey on Tuesday, which would require the Twitter CEO to appear before the committee on Oct. 23. Republicans are already expected to highlight claims of anti-conservative bias at a key Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Oct. 28, where Dorsey and Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg have agreed to testify. Republicans for years have said that the companies are censoring them, but have often offered specious evidence and the companies have strongly denied that their content decisions are politically motivated. 

Facebook and Twitter’s actions were rare, especially because the target was a traditional media outlet. 

The article tested the companies’ long-running efforts to prepare for the 2020 elections, my colleague Elizabeth Dwoskin reported. Twitter marked the link to the New York Post story as “potentially unsafe” and eventually blocked people from sharing the story, after it initially surged to a No. 3 trending story in the United States. Facebook preemptively slowed down the spread of the story on its service, while it waited for its third-party fact-checking partners to make a determination on the story’s authenticity. The company has taken this step before, but it isn’t standard. 

The article was based on allegedly leaked emails, which suggested that Hunter Biden gave a Ukrainian executive the “opportunity” to meet the former vice president. The Biden campaign says his schedule indicated such a meeting did not take place. 

The company’s actions highlighted how they’re implementing the many policies they adopted to address election integrity since 2016. The companies have been planning for a scenario similar to the Russia-tied email dump of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. 

Separately, the White House was warned by U.S. intelligence agencies last year that President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence, my colleagues Shane Harris, Ellen Nakashima, Greg Miller and Josh Dawsey report. Giuliani, along with Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s former top political adviser, helped facilitate the information that the New York Post said came from Hunter Biden’s computer and hard drive.

Twitter issued a reversal of its policy on hacked materials amid the political fallout. 

Vijaya Gadde, Twitter’s legal, policy, trust and safety lead, said last night the company would overhaul the hacked materials policy that resulted in blocking the article in response to “feedback.” Going forward, it will only remove material directly shared by hackers and those working with them, and it will label tweets rather than banning links from being shared on Twitter. 

Twitter will continue to block the link to the New York Post story under a separate policy, which prohibits sharing people’s personal information, the company said.

And Dorsey today said straight blocking of URLs “was wrong.” 

The announcements are a stunning reversal from Twitter’s explanation for the action on Wednesday. 

Brandon Borrman, Twitter’s vice president of global communications, initially pointed Elizabeth to the company’s hacked materials policy, which then said, “We don’t permit the use of our services to directly distribute content obtained through hacking that contains private information.” He said the company had blocked links before under the policy, but did not say when. 

But Dorsey later said the company’s communications around the actions were “not great,” and the company’s corporate account later tweeted that it blocked sharing of the article because it included images that contained personal and private information in violation of its rules.

Trump responded by tweeting a satirical article as if it were factual that suggested Twitter shut down entirely to slow the spread of the New York Post article. The company had an outage yesterday, which the company said was caused by a system change that was initiated earlier than planned and impacted its servers. 

From Buzzfeed’s Craig Silverman:

Facebook, meanwhile, declined to comment on the backlash from Republicans. Facebook spokesman Andy Stone explained the company’s handling of the New York Post story on Twitter Wednesday. 

Against this backdrop, the FCC’s announcement about its plans to review Section 230 is sparking controversy. 

Many of the FCC’s critics pounced on the fact that Pai announced a long-anticipated rule-making on Section 230 in the final weeks before the election and amid the backlash over the handling of the New York Post story.

“The timing of this effort is absurd,” Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democratic FCC commissioner, said in a statement. “The FCC has no business being the President’s speech police.”

Tech industry groups were also critical of the decision. Netchoice, a trade group representing major tech companies, announced it opposed the decision and questioned whether the FCC had the authority to redefine Section 230. 

“Congress never granted the FCC the power to interpret Section 230,” said Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel at NetChoice. “The history and text of the law both confirm that the FCC lacks the authority to regulate the online speech through Section 230.” 

But Pai defended his authority to move forward with the rulemaking process, saying in a statement that the commission’s general counsel has determined it has the legal authority to move forward. The FCC is taking this step after the Department of Commerce petitioned the FCC to “clarify ambiguities in Section 230,” following an executive order that the president signed earlier this year. Trump signed that executive order shortly after Twitter began more aggressively cracking down on his tweets that violate its rules. 

The FCC’s process begins as members of both parties in Congress have proposed legislation that would limit the protections tech companies enjoy under Section 230. 

Meanwhile, the companies are also dealing with the threat of increased antitrust scrutiny. Traditionally, Democrats have been more aggressive than Republicans in calling for the companies to be broken up or otherwise regulated. But some Republicans are more aggressively calling for antitrust action amid the controversy. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), one of the companies’ most vocal critics, suggested that Facebook had monopoly power on Twitter. 

Note to readers: The Technology 202 won’t publish Monday or Tuesday. We’ll be back in your inbox on Wednesday, Enjoy the weekend!

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Trump refused to denounce QAnon again, even as YouTube joined other tech companies in cracking down on the conspiracy.

Trump claimed not to know much about the group when asked by NBC News host Savannah Guthrie at his televised town hall. “What I do hear about it is that they are very strongly against pedophilia, and I agree with that,” Trump said. 

The QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that Democrats and celebrities abuse children, has gained some traction in mainstream Republican politics has been labeled by the FBI as a terrorist threat.

NBC’s Ben Collins noted adherents of the conspiracy theory would celebrate the president’s remarks:

That could make it harder for Silicon Valley companies to follow through on their recent promises to crack down on QAnon. YouTube is the latest to change its policies, and it did not say how many videos and channels would be affected. Several of the most popular accounts pushing the conspiracy theory were removed yesterday, Elizabeth and Isaac Stanley-Becker report. YouTube began removing some of the content after updating its hate and harassment policies prohibit content that “targets an individual or group with conspiracy theories that have been used to justify real-world violence.” 

YouTube will still allow discussions of the conspiracy theory that don’t involve targeted harassment. 

Twitter made a similar decision this summer, resulting in the immediate ban of 7,000 QAnon accounts. Facebook most recently decided to ban the content entirely.  YouTube previously acted against QAnon related videos and channels for violating its policies about Holocaust denial and covid-19 misinformation.

A group of state attorneys general plan to follow the Justice Department’s Google lawsuit with their own investigation.

The states will issue a statement that they are still scrutinizing aspects of Google’s business and may not join the federal case, Tony Romm reports. The states leading the probe include Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Tennessee and Utah. 

The Justice Department’s complaint is expected to focus on Google’s search business. A group of approximately a dozen Republican attorneys general plan to join the lawsuit, which is expected to be announced next week. Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton (R.) is also leading an antitrust investigation targeting Google’s advertising business.

Google preempted the expected lashing by regulators at an event for its search service Thursday, Rachel Lerman reports. “There’s never been more choice and competition in the way people access information,” said head of search Prabhakar Raghavan. Google has been criticized for pushing its own products over rivals in its search service.

Amazon Ring call center workers say they are getting sick from their work conditions.

The Phillipines-based contract workers estimate that dozens out of hundreds of workers at their center have developed coronavirus symptoms due to crowded shifts and shared living accommodations, Olivia Solon and April Glaser at NBC News report. Their requests to work from home have been repeatedly denied. 

“People are scared because we don’t know who has it and who doesn’t have it,” an Amazon Ring contractor told NBC News “But people don’t have a choice, because it’s either you will be infected or you will die of starvation.”  At least one contractor has died during the pandemic, though the company did not disclose the cause of her death.

Workers are sent home if they are sick and some have paid sick leave, Mike Lytle, the chief operating officer at Teleperformance Philippines, said.

For the first six months of the pandemic, employees slept on the floor of the call center until public news reports prompted Amazon to investigate. The contractor, Teleperformance, promised to make changes but hasn’t provided alternative living situations. Instead, employees are forced to share rooms that cost 20 percent of their income. 

The report highlights the discrepancy in treatment between tech companies’ corporate employees and contractors during the coronavirus pandemic. Facebook recently made its contract content moderators return to the office despite safety concerns.

Amazon Ring spokeswoman Emma Daniels said the company won’t allow the contractors to work from home because of data security concerns and privacy. But it’s unclear how many workers actually access confidential information on a daily basis.

Rant and rave

Trump’s team slammed Biden during dueling town halls last night by comparing him to Mr. Rogers. 

Twitter said, “wait, what?”

The digital race to 2020

Top executives at Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft  have poured $16 million into the election cycle.

But none of the companies chief executives have donated, according to data reported by Issie Lapowsky at Protocol provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. Nearly all of the money went to Democrats Just one executive, Douglas Vetter, vice president and associate general counsel at Apple, donated to Trump.

The average donation was just over $183,000. Microsoft board member Reid Hoffman donated nearly $8 million to Democratic causes. Other notable donors to Democrats included Facebook chief operating office Sheryl Sandberg and Microsoft president Brad Smith.

Trump tracker

The White House has a new plan for protecting emerging U.S. technologies from China and Russia.

As our competitors and adversaries mobilize vast resources in these fields, American dominance in science and technology is more important now than ever, and is vital to our long-term economic and national security, the White House’s press office said in a statement. “The United States will not turn a blind eye to the tactics of countries like China and Russia, which steal technology.

The plan includes leveraging the private sector  to accelerate development and to reduce burdensome regulations that stall industry growth. It prioritizes securing supply chains for the technologies though it doesn’t provide specifics.

Hill happenings

Congress is urging a government watchdog to look into federal surveillance of police brutality protests.

They say the surveillance could have a chilling effect on protesters and raise concerns government agencies could be circumventing rules for using the surveillance technology. 

“The act of protesting has played a central role in advancing civil rights in our country, and our Constitution protects the right of Americans to engage in peaceful protest unencumbered by government interference,” Reps. Anna G. Eshoo and Bobby L. Rush (D-Il.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) wrote in a letter to members of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. 

PCLOB, an independent oversight board, is focused on the executive government’s response to terrorism threats, which the trio say is appropriate given Trump’s labeling of BLM protesters

The letter is the latest in an ongoing push for oversight of federal agencies surveilling peaceful protesters. Wyden and Eshoo also demanded an investigation into the use of National Guard flights over protests, which led to an Air Force Inspector General investigation.

Lawmakers want Amazon to immediately stop surveilling employees engaged in labor organizing.

Reports that the company is infiltrating private worker listservs and social media groups and visually mapping “labor organizing threats” could possibly amount to labor law violations, a group of Senators led by Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) wrote to the company.  

“It is deeply concerning that Amazon has prioritized tracking workers who would look to improve their working conditions over addressing the underlying health and safety concerns that those workers face,” Sens. Schatz, Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote in a letter Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos. Bezos owns The Post.

The letter also poses questions about recently deleted job postings that originally suggested Amazon was hiring intelligence agents to surveil activist and labor groups in the company.

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Daybook

  • The Aspen Tech Policy Hub will hold a forum highlighting tools to improve access to information about covid-19 during the pandemic on Wednesday at 12 p.m. ET

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We don’t know why this had to happen, but Happy Friday!





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