While many of the issues, legislation, and hearings advancing US policy have been canceled, some have continued. Antitrust, disinformation, and privacy debates are still on the now-virtual table.
To put it lightly, March has been a rollercoaster. The latter half of the month has been overrun with COVID-19 news, America working from home, and the government response (or lack of in some situations) to the imminent public health crisis. The first half of the month, however, was actually quite busy in Washington. What normally would have been the ramp-up in activity prior to a spring recess on Capitol Hill has now turned into a month-long legislation-fest with no end in sight. While much has been put on hold to deal with the pressing issues we face from the pandemic, the tech world has, and will in-all-likelihood remain, in the limelight.
We are also working diligently on a regularly updated and in-depth list of the initiatives, projects, and statements by the software community during this crisis. It can be found here. We are very interested to hear how software development businesses of all sizes, independent contractors, and other groups are handling the situation. If you are working on or are aware of projects that you think should be highlighted please reach out to our Communications Manager, Dakota Graves, here.
Finally, don’t forget: Stay at home, keep distance, wash your hands, and call your mom.
If you haven’t heard yet, everything is canceled: Most tech companies limited employees’ travel earlier in the month to only the essential due to coronavirus fears. The rest of the developed world followed suit shortly thereafter. Google canceled the I/O conference, the Game Developer Conference was canceled, SXSW was canceled, and Facebook moved its F8 conference online. There’s plenty more that I missed, but if in doubt, check out IsItCanceledYet.com.
Recess Is Over
The COVID-19 outbreak on Capitol Hill has forced many Congressional staffers to work remotely to keep with social-distancing recommendations, however the members themselves are unable to vote remotely, thus are still present in the chambers. Despite the majority of members of Congress being considered high-risk purely due to their age, they have limited their spring recess and remained on the Hill to draft and negotiate a variety of relief packages for the American public during the pandemic.
We will keep you posted on what we are asking Congress for, and what the bills contain for developers. Have thoughts or suggestions? Submit comments here.
Maximum Social Distancing Meets Massive Modernizations
Government agencies around the country have moved to maximum telework capacity, testing the federal IT architecture. Agencies have repeatedly asked for funding to the Technology Modernization Fund to bring their technology up to date, however, their requests have continually been denied to the full extent truly needed. This inadequacy is particularly highlighted in an instance such as this where all agencies need remote working options. In an effort to combat the stress on the existing system while America keeps the government running (while still in their pajamas), there is a discussion of a $3 billion cash injection to the Technology Modernization Fund in one of the coming stimulus bills.
The Supreme Court has indefinitely postponed all Oral Arguments in light of the virus. This follows precedent with past epidemics. The postponement will impact the announcements of the decision on the Google v. Oracle case on APIs that were initially expected this spring.
Facebook’s Disinformation Pledge
Facebook is pledging to fight disinformation by prohibiting ads intended to create panic or imply that certain products guarantee a cure or prevent people from contracting the coronavirus while further promoting verified virus sources such as the World Health Organization and the US Center For Disease Control.
Privacy Concerns vs Combatting COVID
The US government and private tech companies are looking at whether data collected can be utilized to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but it raises many questions regarding privacy concerns moving forward.
Google, Microsoft, And Apple Partner With Government Agencies To Build COVID-19 Resource Apps and Sites
Google previously pledged to work with the US Government “in developing a nationwide website that includes information about COVID-19 symptoms, risk and testing information.” It provides safety and prevention tips, shares data and insights Google has gathered on the virus, highlights the company’s relief efforts, and gives additional resources for life during the quarantine. The company has also restructured search results for corona to provide resources quicker and prevent the spread of misinformation. The site can be found here.
Microsoft partnered with the CDC to build a “self-checker” message bot into the CDC website to walk citizens through potential symptoms, self-assessments, and determine whether they need to be tested or receive medical care. That bot can be found here.
Meanwhile, Apple also partnered with the CDC to build a site an app for iOS devices. Apple then alerted its user base to new apps launch, and are highlighting it on their website and the top of the
iOS App Store. Like Microsoft and Google’s resources, the site and app provide a self-screening tool, as well as access to all CDC guidelines. Apple has also pledged to fight misinformation by removing apps from the App Store that aim to mislead users or take advantage of the situation. The site and the app can be found here.
A New Fair Ground For CEOs and Workers?
On February 27th, Senator Sanders introduced the CEO and Worker Pension Fairness Act. The bill sets out to tax employee stock options sooner — at the point of vesting rather than actualization. The requirements would hit most devs with equity, and especially those working for startups, unfairly in the wallet — their personal wallet that is.
“BUYER BEWARE: Fake and Unsafe Products On Online Marketplaces”
The House Energy and Commerce Committee held a hearing on March 4th entitled “BUYER BEWARE: Fake and Unsafe Products On Online Marketplaces”. The panel featured a number of consumer advocates as well as representatives from platforms. Advocates stressed the dangers of having counterfeit products within the marketplace — including showcasing the dangers by having a congressman easily jump on and destroy a counterfeit bicycle helmet mid-hearing. Platforms highlighted measures they have been taking in an effort to curb sourcing of the goods to preserve the integrity of their platforms. This included moderating and verifying sellers of these products. Members highlighted the focus the Trump Administration has been placing on curbing online counterfeits; witnesses confirmed that while many of the illicit products are coming from China, that they often face counterfeit products from all jurisdictions, and thus holistic measures to contain the problem are necessary and not just a global trade issue.
Financial Services Committee Considers CONFRONT Act
The House Financial Services Committee held a hearing on March 4th entitled “The Traffickers’ Roadmap: How Bad Actors Exploit Financial Systems to Facilitate the Illicit Trade in People, Animals, Drugs, and Weapons.” The hearing was set to specifically discuss pending legislation, including the discussion draft proposed by Rep.McAdams and Gonzalez, known as the “Stopping Trafficking, Illicit Flows, Laundering, and Exploitation Act,” and H.R. 1387, the “CONFRONT Act.”
Small Business Committee Hears Blockchain Benefits
The House Small Business Committee held a hearing on March 4th entitled “Building Blocks of Change: The Benefits of Blockchain Technology for Small Businesses.” The hearing puts the cryptocurrency applications of blockchain technology aside and focuses on blockchain’s broader usages, “including tracking goods in global supply chains or enabling peer-to-peer transactions between connected devices.” The hearing focused on “(exploring) how innovators and entrepreneurs are using blockchain technology to help small businesses boost productivity, increase security, open new markets, and change the way business is done.” The witnesses largely consisted of industry professionals, including representatives from blockchain powerhouse groups such as the Blockchain Association and the Chamber of Digital Commerce.
“Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing”?
The Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism held a hearing on March 4th entitled “Dangerous Partners: Big Tech and Beijing.” The hearing, which featured two panels of security experts, included an announcement from Sen. Hawley (R-MO) that he was introducing S.3455, a bill to prohibit the Chinese-owned app TikTok on any device issued by the United States or a government corporation.
Facebook Reports Coordinated Inauthentic Behavior
Facebook released a report on coordinated inauthentic behavior on their platform. They indicated that in February 2020 alone they removed 5 networks of accounts that they believed were engaging in foreign or government interference — AKA, “coordinated inauthentic behavior on behalf of a foreign actor or government entity.”
Apple Slow-Down Settlement Agreement
Apple has agreed to pay a settlement worth up to $500 million to settle the class-action lawsuit accusing it of intentionally slowing down older iPhones. Apple denies any wrongdoing.
Future of EARN It Act Earns Speculation, Targets Encryption
Speculation builds as Senator Lindsay Graham releases a draft of his EARN IT Act of 2019 (AKA ‘‘Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies Act of 2019”). The proposed bill is meant to “establish a National Commission on Online Child Exploitation Prevention,” however industry is concerned with the bill being an attack on end-to-end encryption, and forcing companies to root out and hand law enforcement encrypted customer communications. The proposed bill would deny companies immunity under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act if they are unable to actively prove that they are effectively rooting out child exploitation content on their platforms. At the hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told the tech world that he “(doesn’t) buy anything you just said about the tech companies and the internet ecosystem really caring,” upon being explained the concerns with removing encryption, citing that “All they care about is just not getting sued.” While most internet-based companies are opposed to the legislation due to the heavy mandate it would place on them, the Match Group was a tech witness in support of the bill, though this outlier of support is likely related to the format of their platforms and their existing compliance measures.
Competition Concerns Aren’t Going Anywhere
On Tuesday, March 10th the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Competition Policy and Consumer Rights met to host a hearing entitled Competition in Digital Technology Markets: Examining Self-Preferencing by Digital Platforms. Witnesses included Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman; ACT | The App Association President Morgan Reed; Gene Kimmelman from Public Knowledge; Sally Hubbard from the Open Markets Institute; and Thomas Hazlett, an economics professor from Clemson University. Industry witnesses identified the important role that platforms play in facilitating both growth in the market, as well as new markets, both online and in the real world.
Virtual Judiciary Roundtable; Antitrust Report Still On Track
House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee held a virtual roundtable session on March 17th on online competition. While the event was originally supposed to take place in Chairman of the Committee, Rep. Cicilline’s home state of Rhode Island, the session was converted into a video teleconference due to the coronavirus pandemic. The panel is expected to issue its long-anticipated report and policy recommendations on antitrust issues with regards to Big Tech by the end of the first quarter of 2020; Cicilline has indicated that despite COVID-19 setbacks the committee plans to stick to their original timeline for this report.