From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

Biden elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission, a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants. (File/AFP)
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Updated 23 June 2021

From Biden to Congress, Big Tech is under mounting pressure

  • US President Joe Biden believes steps are needed to protect privacy, generate more innovation and deal with other problems created by big technology platforms.
  • The huge legislative package from the House Judiciary Committee targets big tech companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up.

WASHINGTON: Without speaking a word or scratching a pen across paper, President Joe Biden drove up the pressure on Big Tech companies already smarting under federal and congressional investigations, epic antitrust lawsuits and near-constant condemnation from politicians of both parties.
Biden last week elevated a fierce critic of Big Tech, antitrust legal scholar Lina Khan, to head the powerful Federal Trade Commission. The surprise move was a clear signal of a tough stance toward tech giants Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple, and came as sweeping bipartisan legislation advanced in the House that could curb their market power and force them to sever their dominant platforms from their other lines of business.
The House Judiciary Committee is digging into the legislation in a public drafting session Wednesday, an initial step in what promises to be a strenuous slog through Congress. Many Republican lawmakers denounce the market dominance of Big Tech but don’t support a wholesale revamp of the antitrust laws. Republicans have relentlessly hurled accusations of anti-conservative bias against the social media platforms and may demand targeted legislative sanctions in return for their support.
The huge legislative package, led by industry critic Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., targets the companies’ structure and could point toward breaking them up, a dramatic step for Congress to take against a powerful industry whose products are woven into everyday life. If such steps were mandated, they could bring the biggest changes to the industry since the federal government’s landmark case against Microsoft some 20 years ago.
“It will be a really heavy lift,” says Rebecca Allensworth, a professor of antitrust at Vanderbilt University Law School. The complex language that could eventually be laid down may invite fights in the courts by rewriting four decades of antitrust case law, she suggested.
Lauded as engines of innovation, the Silicon Valley giants for decades enjoyed minimal regulation and star status in Washington, with a notable coziness during the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president. The industry’s fortunes abruptly reversed about two years ago, when the companies came under intense federal scrutiny, a searing congressional investigation, and growing public criticism over issues of competition, consumer privacy and hate speech.
Biden said as a presidential candidate that dismantling the big tech companies should be considered. He also has said he wants to see changes to the social media companies’ long-held legal protections for speech on their platforms.
The legislative proposals also would prohibit the tech giants from favoring their own products and services over competitors on their platforms. The legislation was informed by a 15-month Judiciary subcommittee antitrust investigation, led by Cicilline, that concluded the four tech giants have abused their market power by charging excessive fees, imposing tough contract terms and extracting valuable data from individuals and businesses that rely on them.
The four companies deny abusing their dominant market position and have asserted that improper intervention in the market through legislation would hurt small businesses and consumers.
The legislation also would make it tougher for the giant tech companies to snap up competitors in mergers, which they have completed by scores in recent years.
And the legislation asks Congress to boost the budgets of regulators who police competition, such as the Federal Trade Commission and the antitrust division of the Justice Department. State attorneys general would get power over companies to choose which courts to prosecute tech antitrust cases in. Some expert observers view those as the less complicated and less controversial parts of the legislation that may stand a better chance of making it to congressional passage.
Democrats control the House, but they would need to garner significant Republican support in the Senate for legislation to pass. The chamber is split 50-50 with the Democrats’ one-vote margin depending on Vice President Kamala Harris being the tiebreaker.
The tech industry has known that major antitrust legislation would likely follow the House investigation. And it was known for months that Biden was naming Lina Khan as one of five members of the FTC. But Silicon Valley — and nearly everyone inside the Beltway — was blindsided by Biden’s lightning move elevating Khan to head the independent agency. She was sworn in just hours after the Senate confirmed her as one of five commissioners on a 69-28 vote.
Khan, who has been a law professor at Columbia University, burst onto the antitrust scene with her weighty scholarly work in 2017 as a Yale law student, “Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox.” She helped lay the foundation for a new way of looking at antitrust law beyond the impact of big-company market dominance on consumer prices. As counsel to the Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, she played a key role in the 2019-20 investigation of the tech giants’ market power.
At 32, Khan is believed to be the youngest chair in the history of the FTC, which polices competition and consumer protection in industry generally as well as digital privacy.
Last October the Trump Justice Department, joined by about a dozen states, filed a ground-breaking antitrust lawsuit against Google, accusing the company of abusing its dominance in online search and advertising to stifle competition. That was followed in December by a big antitrust suit against Facebook, brought by the FTC and nearly every US state. It seeks remedies that could include a forced spinoff of the popular Instagram and WhatsApp messaging services.
European watchdogs, meanwhile, are stepping up their antitrust actions against the tech giants. In the latest move, word came Tuesday that European Union regulators have opened a new investigation into whether Google stifled competition in digital ad technology. The EU regulators have previously charged Apple with stifling competition in music streaming, and accused Amazon of using data from independent merchants to unfairly compete against them with its own products.
EU and British regulators recently opened dual antitrust probes into whether Facebook distorts competition in the classified advertising market by using data to unfairly compete against rival services.


Facebook and tech giants to target attacker manifestos, far-right militias in database

The tech platforms have long been criticized for failing to police violent extremist content, though they also face concerns over censorship. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 July 2021

Facebook and tech giants to target attacker manifestos, far-right militias in database

  • Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants are stepping up efforts to crack down on white supremacist and far right content
  • Over the next few months, the database will add attacker manifestos that are often shared by sympathizers after white supremacist violence

LONDON: A counterterrorism organization formed by some of the biggest US tech companies including Facebook and Microsoft is significantly expanding the types of extremist content shared between firms in a key database, aiming to crack down on material from white supremacists and far-right militias, the group told Reuters.
Until now, the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism’s (GIFCT) database has focused on videos and images from terrorist groups on a United Nations list and so has largely consisted of content from Islamist extremist organizations such as Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Over the next few months, the group will add attacker manifestos — often shared by sympathizers after white supremacist violence — and other publications and links flagged by UN initiative Tech Against Terrorism. It will use lists from intelligence-sharing group Five Eyes, adding URLs and PDFs from more groups, including the Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and neo-Nazis.
The firms, which include Twitter and Alphabet Inc’s YouTube, share “hashes,” unique numerical representations of original pieces of content that have been removed from their services. Other platforms use these to identify the same content on their own sites in order to review or remove it.
While the project reduces the amount of extremist content on mainstream platforms, groups can still post violent images and rhetoric on many other sites and parts of the Internet.
The tech group wants to combat a wider range of threats, said GIFCT’s Executive Director Nicholas Rasmussen in an interview with Reuters.
“Anyone looking at the terrorism or extremism landscape has to appreciate that there are other parts... that are demanding attention right now,” Rasmussen said, citing the threats of far-right or racially motivated violent extremism.
The tech platforms have long been criticized for failing to police violent extremist content, though they also face concerns over censorship. The issue of domestic extremism, including white supremacy and militia groups, took on renewed urgency https://www.reuters.com/world/us/biden-administration-unveils-plan-tackle-domestic-terrorism-2021-06-15 following the deadly Jan. 6 riot at the US Capitol.
Fourteen companies can access the GIFCT database, including Reddit, Snapchat-owner Snap, Facebook-owned Instagram, Verizon Media, Microsoft’s LinkedIn and file-sharing service Dropbox.
GIFCT, which is now an independent organization, was created in 2017 under pressure from US and European governments after a series of deadly attacks in Paris and Brussels. Its database mostly contains digital fingerprints of videos and images related to groups on the UN Security Council’s consolidated sanctions list and a few specific live-streamed attacks, such as the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
GIFCT has faced criticism and concerns from some human and digital rights groups over centralized or over-broad censorship.
“Over-achievement in this takes you in the direction of violating someone’s rights on the Internet to engage in free expression,” said Rasmussen.
Emma Llanso, director of Free Expression at the Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement: “This expansion of the GIFCT hash database only intensifies the need for GIFCT to improve the transparency and accountability of these content-blocking resources.”
“As the database expands, the risks of mistaken takedown only increase,” she added.
The group wants to continue to broaden its database to include hashes of audio files or certain symbols and grow its membership. It recently added home-rental giant Airbnb and email marketing company Mailchimp as members.


Facebook sets up new team to work on the ‘metaverse’

Facebook has invested heavily in virtual reality and augmented reality such as its Oculus VR headsets, AR glasses and wristband technologies. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 July 2021

Facebook sets up new team to work on the ‘metaverse’

  • Facebook establishes new team to work on metaverse, a digital world where people can move between different devices and virtual environments

LONDON: Facebook is creating a product team to work on the “metaverse,” a digital world where people can move between different devices and communicate in a virtual environment, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said on Monday.
The team will be part of the company’s virtual reality organization, the group’s executive Andrew Bosworth said in a Facebook post.
“You can think about the metaverse as an embodied Internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it,” CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge in an interview last week.
Facebook, the world’s largest social network, has invested heavily in virtual reality and augmented reality, developing hardware such as its Oculus VR headsets and working on AR glasses and wristband technologies.
It has also bought a bevy of VR gaming studios, including BigBox VR. It has about 10,000 employees working on virtual reality, The Information reported in March.
Zuckerberg has said he thinks it makes sense to invest deeply to shape what he bets will be the next big computing platform.
“I believe the metaverse will be the successor to the mobile Internet, and creating this product group is the next step in our journey to help build it,” he said on his Monday Facebook post.
He told The Verge: “If we do this well, I think over the next five years or so ... we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company.”


McDonald’s creates new unit to focus on global digital app

McDonald’s has more than 40 million active app users in its biggest six markets and now offers delivery in more than 30,000 restaurants. (File/Reuters)
Updated 27 July 2021

McDonald’s creates new unit to focus on global digital app

  • McDonald's creates new unit that brings together digital, data analytics, marketing, restaurant development and operations segments
  • Loyalty programs bring in valuable data about customers’ food orders and habits, which restaurants use to push specialized deals

NEW YORK: McDonald’s Corp. is bringing its digital, data analytics, marketing, restaurant development and operations segments into one unit as it focuses on driving growth through its global app and new MyMcDonald’s Rewards program, the company said on Monday.
The company rolled out MyMcDonald’s Rewards on July 8 as fast-food chains have raced to launch loyalty programs to spur sales, reach younger consumers and give customers more ways to order.
To lead the new unit, McDonald’s promoted Manu Steijaert to a new global chief customer officer position, effective Aug. 1 and reporting to Chief Executive Officer Chris Kempczinski. Steijaert previously ran international operated markets including European countries, Russia and Australia.
Nearly half of all restaurant customers use at least one loyalty program, particularly when ordering fast-food, according to a consumer survey from loyalty program provider Paytronix Systems Inc. and PYMNTS.com.
The programs rake in valuable data about customers’ food orders and habits, which restaurants use to push specialized deals in the hope of getting people to eat there more often and spend more money on extra items.
McDonald’s has more than 40 million active app users in its biggest six markets and now offers delivery in more than 30,000 restaurants, Kempczinski said in an internal message seen by Reuters. The company created the team “to remove some internal barriers and silos that ultimately lead to a fragmented customer experience,” Kempczinski said in the memo.
The company reports second-quarter earnings results on Wednesday.


EU gives Google 2 months to improve hotel, flight search results

The final prices for Google Hotel and Google Flight should include fees or taxes that can be calculated in advance. (File/AFP)
Updated 27 July 2021

EU gives Google 2 months to improve hotel, flight search results

  • EU provides Google with two months to improve the way the platform shows internet search results in relation to hotels and flights
  • Google has long faced scrutiny from antitrust enforcers and consumer groups around the world over its business practices

BRUSSELS: Alphabet unit Google has two months to improve the way it presents Internet search results for flights and hotels and explain how it ranks these or face possible sanctions, the European Commission and EU consumer authorities said on Monday.
The world’s most popular Internet search engine has long faced scrutiny from antitrust enforcers and consumer groups around the world over its business practices, which in some cases have landed it with hefty fines.
The latest grievance centers on the prices on its services Google Flights and Google Hotels.
The final prices for these should include fees or taxes that can be calculated in advance, while reference prices used to calculate promoted discounts should be clearly identifiable, the EU executive and national consumer watchdogs, led by the Dutch agency and the Belgian Directorate General for Economic Inspection, said in a joint statement.
“EU consumers cannot be misled when using search engines to plan their holidays. We need to empower consumers to make their choices based on transparent and unbiased information,” EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said.
The agencies also told Google to revise the standard terms of its Google Store because some cases showed that traders have more rights than consumers.
If Google’s proposals are not sufficient, the agencies will discuss the issue further with the company and may impose sanctions.
Google said in a statement: “We welcome this dialogue and are working closely with consumer protection agencies and the European Commission to see how we can make improvements that will be good for our users and provide even more transparency.”


Police shut Al Jazeera TV’s Tunis office

Al Jazeera television said on Monday that Tunisian police had stormed its bureau in the capital Tunis. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 July 2021

Police shut Al Jazeera TV’s Tunis office

  • “Around 15 policemen, some in uniform others in civilian clothes, entered our offices and asked us to leave,” Al Jazeera director in Tunis Lotfi Hajji said
  • The move came a day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended parliament

TUNIS: Tunisian police on Monday closed the office of Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera television in the capital Tunis, its bureau chief said, amid political turmoil in the North African country.
“Around 15 policemen, some in uniform others in civilian clothes, entered our offices and asked us to leave,” Al Jazeera director in Tunis Lotfi Hajji told AFP.
He said the law enforcement officers gave no reason for the actions, but confiscated the keys to the premises and forced all staff to leave.
The move came a day after President Kais Saied ousted the prime minister and suspended parliament, following a day of street protests against the government’s handling of the Covid pandemic.
Hajji said the police told Al Jazeera staff “we are following orders.”
“What is happening is very dangerous, it is proof that freedom of the press is threatened. Today it is Al Jazeera, another day another media,” Hajji said.
AFP contacted the interior minister for further details but no immediate explanations were given for the closure of the outlet’s office.