Leg­is­la­tors, some be­wil­dered, may put off tech is­sues

The Bradenton Herald (Sunday) - - Nation & World - BY TIM JOHN­SON


Weighty high-tech is­sues are likely to flum­mox Congress again this year, just as they did last year, when lengthy hear­ings with chief ex­ec­u­tives of Face­book and Google drew a spot­light to the deep un­fa­mil­iar­ity of some leg­is­la­tors with tech­nol­ogy mat­ters.

Rather than tack­ling is­sues head on about pri­vacy, data pro­tec­tion, and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, leg­is­la­tors may opt for lesser steps.

Democrats now in con­trol of the House say they will heed grow­ing pub­lic clamor about the use – or mis­use – of per­sonal data by so­cial me­dia plat­forms and other dig­i­tal com­pa­nies. But they ac­knowl­edge that lit­tle ac­tion may emerge from the di­vided Congress.

Rep. Frank Pal­lone, a a New Jer­sey Demo­crat who chairs the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, which cov­ers an ar­ray of in­ter­net is­sues, said he will push “poli­cies that pro­tect net neu­tral­ity, pro­mote pub­lic safety, and pro­vide mean­ing­ful pri­vacy and data se­cu­rity pro­tec­tions that are se­ri­ously lack­ing to­day.”

Will that lead to con­crete leg­is­la­tion? Other Democrats set the bar low. “I think it’s not im­pos­si­ble. … I don’t think it’s out of the ques­tion,” said Rep. Pramila Jaya­pal, a Demo­crat from Washington state who sits on the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee.

Some Repub­li­cans con­cur.

“It’s go­ing to be around the edges. It’s not go­ing to be any­thing par­tic­u­larly sub­stan­tive,” said Rep. Andy Biggs, an Ari­zona Repub­li­can and mem­ber of the con­ser­va­tive Free­dom Cau­cus.

In­dus­try ex­perts voiced con­cern that in­ac­tion on Capi­tol Hill will al­low the mus­cu­lar lob­by­ing arms of Big Tech com­pa­nies to mold fu­ture reg­u­la­tion, and leave in­di­vid­ual states and the Euro­pean Union to con­tinue with their own reg­u­la­tory ini­tia­tives, by­pass­ing Washington.

“Other coun­tries are defin­ing the rules of the road for us right now,” said An­drea L. Lim­bago, chief so­cial sci­en­tist at Virtru, a Washington cy­ber­se­cu­rity firm fo­cused on dig­i­tal pri­vacy.

Only a hand­ful of leg­is­la­tors have a deep un­der­stand­ing of dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy, and they rou­tinely are called upon to tu­tor other House mem­bers.

“I’m al­ways shocked by the num­ber of col­leagues that come to me for ad­vice and per­spec­tive,” said

Rep. Will Hurd, a Texas Repub­li­can who stud­ied com­puter science at Texas A&M be­fore join­ing the CIA.

An­other leg­is­la­tor, Rep. Ted Lieu, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, was scorn­ful of a House Ju­di­ciary com­mit- tee hear­ing Dec. 11 in which Google chief ex­ec­u­tive Sun­dar Pichai faced re­peated com­plaints of bias, about how its search en­gine al­go­rithms func­tion.

“We’re not go­ing to be do­ing those stupid hear­ings any­more,” Lieu said.

Dur­ing the Google hear­ing in De­cem­ber, one leg­is­la­tor ap­pealed to Pichai to di­rect his com­pany to of­fer more per­son­al­ized tu­to­ri­als. An­other leg­is­la­tor posed a ques­tion to Pichai while hold­ing up an iPhone, a de­vice made by Ap­ple, not Google, suf­fer­ing ridicule on so­cial me­dia.

Leg­is­la­tors have not put their best foot for­ward, Lim­bago said.

“Shak­ing an iPhone at a Google exec is sort of the meme we see go­ing ev­ery­where to show the dis­con­nect … of what the ac­tual state of the tech en­vi­ron­ment is,” Lim­bago said.

Emerg­ing tech is­sues that have drawn calls for con­gres­sional ac­tion in­clude the use of fa­cial recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy, ac­tiv­i­ties of large Sil­i­con Val­ley firms in China, how to se­cure con­nected home de­vices that are part of the In­ter­net of Things, whether to adopt fed­eral stan­dards that pre-empt a patch­work of state laws, and how to pro­tect the per­sonal data of users.

“These are big, gnarly, hard prob­lems that re­ally thought­ful peo­ple have to work through, and that’s my worry. I don’t see that,” said Shane Green, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of the U.S. branch of digi.me, a Bri­tish com­pany that helps con­sumers keep con­trol of their own data.

Green said he was taken aback by leg­is­la­tors dur­ing hear­ings with Face­book founder Mark Zucker­berg be­fore House and Se­nate com­mit­tees last April. He said some leg­is­la­tors failed to un­der­stand the “in­sa­tiable ap­petite” of

Big Tech to track users for ad­ver­tis­ing pur­poses.

“They re­ally just don’t un­der­stand the ba­sics. In the Face­book hear­ings, lit­er­ally a cou­ple peo­ple asked how they made money and how they could do all this stuff for free,” Green said.

Green wor­ries that leg­is­la­tors might de­sign reg­u­la­tions that hin­der com­pa­nies and sti­fle in­no­va­tion, or worse yet, “end up not reg­u­lat­ing the com­pa­nies at all and let­ting them ef­fec­tively con­tinue with their bad prac­tices. … The worst case, can­didly, is ac­tu­ally hav­ing reg­u­la­tions that are co-opted by the plat­forms.”

Large tech com­pa­nies like Google have ro­bust op­er­a­tions in the cap­i­tal.

“They are one of the big­gest lob­by­ing pow­er­houses in Washington,” said Tom Galvin, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Dig­i­tal Cit­i­zens Al­liance, a non­profit fo­cused on in­ter­net con­sumer safety is­sues.

Congress isn’t the only fo­cus of the lob­by­ists. Other reg­u­la­tory en­ti­ties, in­clud­ing at­tor­neys gen­eral at the state level, are al­ready mold­ing the tech en­vi­ron­ment, some with a con­sumer fo­cus, or in the case of the Euro­pean Union with a fo­cus on com­pe­ti­tion and pri­vacy, Galvin said.

Last May, the Euro­pean Union im­ple­mented its Gen­eral Data Pro­tec­tion Reg­u­la­tion, which en­shrines pro­tec­tions for EU cit­i­zens of their per­sonal data and re­stricts its use out­side the con­ti­nent. Po­ten­tial fines are mam­moth – up to four per­cent of a com­pany’s an­nual global turnover.

But Galvin said such fines are not al­ways a de­ter­rent to Big Tech com­pa­nies.

“A bil­lion dol­lar fine to a com­pany like Google is like our dry clean­ing. If they can solve this prob­lem with money, they will do it ev­ery time,” Galvin said.

Per­haps more wor­ri­some to Big Tech is the chang­ing pub­lic per­cep­tion among or­di­nary users, some of whom are voic­ing pri­vacy con­cerns to their rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

Rep. Raja Kr­ish­namoor­thi, a Demo­crat from Illi­nois who has a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer­ing de­gree, said he hears such con­stituent con­cerns rou­tinely.

“They un­der­stood they gave up some of their pri­vacy and some of their data but they didn’t re­al­ize the ex­tent of it. And it feels un­fair. So they come to us now, and they’re ba­si­cally say­ing, ‘We need to reg­u­late this in­dus­try,’” Kr­ish­namoor­thi said.

At least two states have got­ten a jump on Washington. Ver­mont be­came the first state last May to reg­u­late data bro­ker firms that buy and sell per­sonal con­sumer in­for­ma­tion. A Cal­i­for­nia law, which takes ef­fect in Jan­uary 2020, grants con­sumers the right to know what data is be­ing col­lected and what high-tech com­pa­nies are do­ing with the data.

On a fed­eral level, no sin­gle data pri­vacy law cur­rently ex­ists, al­though Sen. Brian Schatz, a Demo­crat from Hawaii, floated a pro­posal with 14 cospon­sors in mid-De­cem­ber. His is one of three such pro­pos­als in the Se­nate. Sens­ing a chang­ing pub­lic mood, the tech in­dus­try has of­fered sup­port for any fed­eral bill that might over­ride Cal­i­for­nia’s pri­vacy law.


The in­trud­ers ar­rived dur­ing the night with the wind and high tide. By the morn­ing of Jan. 3, it seemed like the lit­tle Cana­dian town had been over­run.

Seals, dozens of them. Seals on the beach, seals on streets and drive­ways, seals in parks and back­yards.

More than a week later, they are still there in Rod­dick­ton-Bide Arm, a re­mote lit­tle town on the is­land of New­found­land, Mayor Sheila Fitzger­ald said Fri­day.

And it has be­come clear that the an­i­mals, hun­gry and dis­tressed, are stranded, un­able to find their way back to the sea.

Harp seals spend win­ters in the wa­ters off New­found­land, and it is com­mon for them to go ashore at times, and to swim into bays like the long, nar­row ocean in­let that bor­ders Rod­dick­ton-Bide Arm, said Garry Sten­son, head of the marine mam­mal sec­tion at Canada’s De- part­ment of Fish­eries and Oceans.

“Then if the ice freezes up be­hind them, they have a harder time get­ting ac­cess to water,” he told Cana­dian broad­caster CBC. “It’s al­most like they get go­ing in a di­rec­tion and just keep go­ing, hop­ing that they’re go­ing to even­tu­ally find water that way.”

There are at least 40 seals in and around Rod­dick­ton-Bide Arm, pop­u­la­tion 999, the mayor said, and pos­si­bly many more.

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