House committee chair calls for FTC antitrust investigation into Facebook

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Facebook is already under regulatory scrutiny in the US, but it could be subject to much more pressure if one House representative has his way. Antitrust subcommittee chairman Rep. David Cicilline has written an editorial in the New York Times calling on the FTC to investigate Facebook for potential antitrust violations. He’s concerned that the social network not only leveraged its power to collect and share data through questionable means, but tried to “obstruct” overseers and “smear” critics while simultaneously engaging in “denial, hollow promises and apology campaigns” that accomplished little.

Cicilline also argued that the FTC wasn’t doing its job. Advocates warned “for years” that Facebook was likely violating the FTC’s 2011 privacy consent order, but the commission allegedly didn’t enforce that order. It didn’t block acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp that helped Facebook “extend its dominance,” Cicilline added.

He further argued that Facebook might be stifling innovation. It bought promising startups like tbh only to shut them down later, and blocked Vine to prevent Twitter’s video service from gaining ground.

We’ve asked Facebook for comment. While an opinion piece doesn’t equate to tangible action, this might give the company reason for concern. As the head of the House subcommittee governing competition issues, Rep. Cicilline has some power to make things happen — Facebook ignores his actions at its peril.

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House chair asks tech CEOs to speak about New Zealand shooting response

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Internet companies say they’ve been scrambling to remove video of the mass shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, but US politicians are concerned they haven’t been doing enough. The Chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, Bennie Thompson, has sent letters to the CEOs of Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and YouTube asking them to brief the committee on their responses to the video on March 27th. Thompson was concerned the footage was still “widely available” on the internet giants’ platforms, and that they “must do better.”

The Chairman noted that the companies formally created an organization to fight online terrorism in June 2017 and touted its success in purging ISIS and al-Qaeda content, but struggled to keep up with the dissemination of the Christchurch video. People have “largely been kept in the dark” about the sites’ success in fighting other kinds of online extremism, according to Thompson. He considered it a problem that Facebook wasn’t aware of the video until informed by New Zealand police, and that YouTube hadn’t addressed the “systemic flaws” that let the material spread.

If companies didn’t focus on responding to these videos, Congress ought to “consider policies” that would prevent the distribution of terrorist content, including measures that might replicate what you’ve seen from other countries.

Facebook has confirmed to Engadget that it will brief the committee “soon.” We’ve asked the other companies for comment as well. Whatever happens, it’s safe to say that companies will argue that tit’s a challenge to keep the shooting video off their sites. They’d be right to a degree (it’s not hard to edit a video to bypass filtering), but that won’t necessarily satisfy committee members worried that the video is still comparatively easy to find.

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Bipartisan bill proposes oversight for commercial facial recognition

On Thursday, Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz and Missouri Senator Roy Blunt introduced a bill designed to offer legislative oversight for commercial applications of facial recognition technology. Known as the Commercial Facial Recognition Privacy Act, the bill would obligate companies to inform consumers about any use of facial recognition and proposes limiting companies from freely sharing facial recognition data with third parties without first obtaining explicit user consent.

“Consumers are increasingly concerned about how their data is being collected and used, including data collected through facial recognition technology,” Senator Blunt said of the bill. “That’s why we need guardrails to ensure that, as this technology continues to develop, it is implemented responsibly.”

Microsoft endorsed the bipartisan bill, which dovetails with some of the company’s own ideas about how facial recognition tech might be regulated. “We believe it’s important for governments in 2019 to start adopting laws to regulate this technology,” Microsoft President Brad Smith wrote in December. “The facial recognition genie, so to speak, is just emerging from the bottle.”

As The Hill points out, the proposed legislation does not include some of the same provisions around the use of facial recognition by law enforcement that Microsoft has mentioned previously, including the requirement of a court order to limit “ongoing government surveillance of specified individuals.” The bill instead focuses on risks specific to the commercial side of facial recognition tech. Other facial recognition legislation has been making the rounds at a state level in Microsoft’s home state this year with buy-in from the company.

“Our faces are our identities. They’re personal. So the responsibility is on companies to ask people for their permission before they track and analyze their faces,” Senator Schatz said of the proposed legislation. “Our bill makes sure that people are given the information and – more importantly – the control over how their data is shared with companies using facial recognition technology.”

Whether the bill goes anywhere or not, proposed legislation does provide insight into the regulatory trends bouncing around Congress at any given moment. As Microsoft’s involvement makes clear, facial recognition is another area of intense interest in which companies may seek to shape legislation before it becomes law.

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Senators want Congressional hacks to be public knowledge

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When a company is hacked, consumers usually find out about it through the press or emails. You probably remember the Target hack that spilled data from millions of credit and debit card accounts. But do you remember the last publicly disclosed Congressional computer breach? (It was in 2009.) That’s because Congress doesn’t have to report when representatives’ networks are hacked. Two Senators want to change that.

Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Tom Cotton of Arkansas are calling on Senate to provide an annual report on the number of successful hacks of Senate phones and computers. They also want Senate leadership to be notified of any breaches within five days of discovery. As the Senators point out, companies and executive branch agencies are required to disclose breaches, but Congress has no legal obligation to do so.

There’s no question that the government is subject to hacking. According to CNET, former Senate Sergeant at Arms Frank Larkin said in 2016, the Senate’s IT systems blocked more than 273 million connections from more than 54,000 malicious websites. The last time a Congressional computer breach was made public was in 2009, when then-Florida Senator Bill Nelson’s personal computers were hacked. It’s certainly in the public’s best interest to know when Senators’ computers have been hacked, but it’s too soon to tell if Wyden and Cotton’s initiative will find any support.

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Trump's 2020 budget proposal cuts the EV tax credit


The Trump administration announced its budget proposal for 2020 and tax credits for electric vehicles is on the chopping block, according to Reuters. The White House is proposing eliminating the subsidy, which provides up to $7,500 on the purchase of a new EV, claiming that it will save the government about $2.5 billion over the next decade.

Before you rush out to buy a plug-in car to score the incentive before it disappears, know that it’s unlikely the proposed budget will pass through Congress. With the House of Representatives currently ruled by a Democratic majority, any Trump proposal is likely to face stiff opposition. Automakers have been lobbying Congress to extend the credit, which currently ends after a company hits 200,000 vehicles sold. Democrats are expected to make an effort to keep the credit alive, though they’ll face challenges in doing so. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, has proposed legislation to end the tax credit.

While the tax credit is likely to cost the government money, that’s in part because it has been successful in incentivizing the purchase of electric vehicles. A congressional report claims more than 57,000 taxpayers claimed an EV credit in 2016 and it’s expected that $7.5 billion in subsidies will be given out to EV buyers between 2018 and 2022. Two car makers, Tesla and General Motors, have already hit the 200,000 vehicle cap but are still eligible for smaller credits.

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