With help from Zach Montellaro, Andy Blatchford, John Hendel, Steven Overly and Leah Nylen
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— Scoop: Facebook’s former security chief is among a group of prominent lawyers and academics urging the independent Facebook Oversight Board not to let former president Donald Trump back on the platform.
— Happening this morning: House Energy and Commerce is voting on a measure that would tuck into the next Covid relief package billions in funding to subsidize resources for students having to take classes online.
— TikTok timeline: There isn’t one. The Biden team put the former administration’s actions against the Chinese-owned video app on hold, upping the intrigue around the new White House’s approach to Beijing.
GREETINGS, TECHLINGS: IT’S THURSDAY. WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.
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COMMENTS ON TRUMP SUSPENSION FLOOD OVERSIGHT BOARD — Facebook’s former chief security officer is among a group writing today to the Facebook Oversight Board urging the independent body against allowing Trump back on the platform. (Friday is the deadline for public input on the board’s case on whether the social network should reverse its decision to indefinitely suspend the former president.) The letter, shared first with POLITICO via Morning Score, is being submitted to the oversight board in response to its request for public comment.
— Facebook veteran Alex Stamos, who is now director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, signed onto the letter led by election expert Rick Hasen that said Facebook had made “the correct decision.” While they acknowledged the dangers of banning a political leader, “Trump’s actions justified the step of indefinitely deplatforming him,” they wrote, concluding: “There no doubt will be close calls under a policy that allows the deplatforming of political leaders in extreme circumstances. This was not one of them.”
— Among the other signees were Janai Nelson of the NAACP-LDF and Norm Ornstein, an emeritus scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. And they made clear they also hold Facebook responsible: “Without social media spreading Trump’s statements,” they wrote, “it seems extremely unlikely these events would have occurred.”
— Keep an eye out: Oversight Board co-chair Helle Thorning Schmidt, the former Danish prime minister, and its head of communications, Dex Hunter-Torricke, are speaking this morning at a Carnegie Endowment event on Facebook’s Trump ban.
IN OTHER FACEBOOK NEWS — The social giant says it will temporarily reduce the amount of political content in news feeds for some users starting this week. The platform’s initial test is being done for a small percentage of people in Canada, Brazil and Indonesia, followed by the U.S. in the coming weeks. These are the countries where users most commonly told the company there was too much political content in their feeds, Facebook Canada’s Erin Taylor told my colleague, Andy Blatchford, in a statement.
— There’s a robot for that: For these first test cases, Facebook will try leaning on machine learning to identify the political content. They’ll use “a machine learning model that is trained to look for signals of political content and predict whether a post is related to politics,” Taylor said. “We’ll be refining this model during the test period to better identify political content, and may or may not end up using this method longer-term.”
— Going, but not gone: Facebook may temporarily cut back on the distribution of political content in news feeds, but it won’t remove political content from the platform altogether, Taylor said: “Our goal is to preserve the ability for people to find and interact with political content on Facebook, while respecting each person’s appetite for it at the top of their News Feed.”
TODAY: HOUSE E&C VOTES ON COVID-ERA INTERNET BOOST — House Energy and Commerce lawmakers vote today on legislative recommendations to have the FCC administer a $7.6 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund that would help pay for households’ purchases of laptops, tablets and at-home connectivity devices (like Wi-Fi hotspots, modems and routers) during the pandemic. The provision, slating money intended to help schools and libraries offer at-home internet connectivity, is one of many in the pandemic relief legislation that falls into E&C’s jurisdiction.
— Cheerleaders across the dome: Democratic Sens. Ed Markey (Mass.), Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Michael Bennet (Colo.) and Maggie Hassan (N.H.) joined Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) in applauding the provisions and urging the fund’s retention in a final Covid aid bill.
— Building on E-Rate: The provision builds on a long-running push to expand the FCC’s existing subsidy program called E-Rate, which helps connect schools and libraries. And incoming Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) also wants the type of money the House lawmakers are eyeing, she told reporters Tuesday: “The next focus of attention will be getting more money in the E-Rate program because we have 12 million kids who still can’t get access to broadband advantages that they deserve.” (Her panel will vote on its organizing rules this morning, officially giving her the gavel.)
— Around the corner: E&C announced plans to hold a hearing next week on expanding internet access during the pandemic.
TEAM BIDEN HALTS TRUMP’S TIKTOK BATTLE — The (seemingly never-ending) saga over the future of popular video-sharing app TikTok may finally be fizzling out. The Biden administration asked a federal appeals court on Wednesday to freeze the legal battle it inherited with the Chinese company as the new government conducts a broader review of Trump’s policies related to China. (That includes an executive order that sought to banish TikTok and its parent company, ByteDance, from the U.S.) ByteDance did not oppose the Biden team’s request.
— What about Oracle? The Wall Street Journal also reported Wednesday that the deal TikTok had been negotiating to sell part of its U.S. operations to Oracle and Walmart has been suspended indefinitely. That deal was being forced by the Trump administration, which threatened to boot ByteDance if it did not find an American buyer for its U.S. business.
— View from the White House: White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday that the Biden administration has yet to take action on TikTok, and declined to provide a timeline for when it might do so. “I will note, broadly speaking, that we are comprehensively evaluating the risks to U.S. data, including from TikTok, and will address them in a decisive and effective fashion,” she said. “If we have news to announce, we will announce it.” Congressional China hawk Sen. Rick Scott described this as backtracking and “weakness toward Communist China.”
— View from the former CEO: “The Trump administration didn’t think out what they were doing very well,” former TikTok CEO Kevin Mayer said Wednesday on Fox Business.
SLAUGHTER’S FAMOUS FIRST WORDS: MAKE PRIVACY VIOLATORS DELETE DATA — In her first major speech as acting FTC chair, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter said the agency should force companies that violate consumer privacy laws to give up data obtained illegally.
— Lead by example: Slaughter highlighted the FTC’s January settlement with Everalbum — in which the agency forced the photo app to delete consumer data and a facial recognition algorithm it created without user consent — as a model for future enforcement. “Where companies collect and use consumers’ data in unlawful ways, we should require violators to disgorge not only the ill-gotten data, but also the benefits — here, the algorithms — generated from that data,” she said Wednesday at a Future of Privacy Forum event.
— Other priorities? Slaughter also noted two other privacy enforcement areas that she wants the FTC to focus on: biased and discriminatory algorithms, and facial recognition. Both can exacerbate existing racial disparities, she said, citing studies that found that health algorithms prioritize care for white patients over sicker, Black patients and incidents where faulty facial recognition has led to the wrongful arrests of Black men. Slaughter also expressed concerns about surveillance and the collection of location information about protestors.
Tarika Barrett, chief operating officer of Girls Who Code, will in April succeed Reshma Saujani as the organization’s CEO; Saujani will stay on as board chair. … Google veteran Brittany Smith, who most recently ran partnerships and engagement on AI policy, human rights and racial justice at DeepMind, this month became Data & Society’s first policy director.
Government crackdown: “A Tencent executive has been held by Chinese authorities for alleged unauthorized sharing of personal WeChat data,” WSJ reports.
Will accept payment in bitcoin: “Twitter’s finance chief said the social-media company has thought about how it might pay employees or vendors using the popular cryptocurrency bitcoin,” WSJ reports.
Worth a close look: The Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab and Just Security published “#StopTheSteal: A Timeline of Social Media and Extremist Activities Leading up to 1/6 Insurrection.” The in-depth investigation and comprehensive chronology around #StopTheSteal tracks the movement from the 2016 election through the Capitol violence in January.
California, Washington, Virginia… it’s all happening: “New state privacy initiatives turn up heat on Congress,” The Hill reports.
SCOTUS watch: “Suing technology firms when they mess up is already hard, especially over privacy violations. Now, Facebook, Google, and the trade groups representing all the big tech firms are asking the Supreme Court to make it even harder for class actions to pursue cases against them,” ArsTechnica reports.
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