Emerging Technologies Washington Update

May 2, 2019

Pardon Our Dust

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This Week: Consumer advocates discuss privacy before Senate Commerce Committee, House E&C panel convenes hearing on robocall bills, NIST Launches RFI on federal AI Standards, Commissioner Starks supports bill targeting algorithmic bias.

Week in Review

The House and Senate returned to Washington this week after a two-week recess. On Tuesday, the President met with senior congressional Democrats, including Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Minority Leader Schumer (D-NY), at the White House to discuss a potential infrastructure package. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow, and presidential advisers Ivanka Trump and Kellyanne Conway were also among those in attendance. After the meeting, Pelosi and Schumer said that they reached an agreement with the President to negotiate towards a $2 trillion package without having discussed specific funding mechanisms. Another meeting is expected in about three weeks.

The following day, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee convened a hearing during which all members of the House were invited to speak on their infrastructure-related priorities while the Committee prepares to consider surface transportation reauthorization legislation.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 68-31 to confirm William Cooper to be General Counsel of the Department of Energy and 72-27 to confirm Gordon Hartogensis to be Director of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation. The upper chamber also considered a number of other judicial nominations.

On the other other side of the Capitol, Rep. Hice (R-GA) offered a discharge petition this week in an attempt to force a floor vote on the Green New Deal resolution spearheaded by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). The procedural tactic, which is rarely successful, forces a vote if the petition attracts 218 signatures.

Attorney General Bill Barr fielded questions this week from both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees on Mueller report and the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein also announced on Monday that he will resign effective May 11. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s planned vote to advance the President’s nominee for Deputy AG, Deputy Secretary of Transportation Jeff Rosen, was postponed.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer spent the week in Beijing for US-China trade talks.

Looking Ahead

With the Memorial Day and lengthy August recess looming between now and the end of the fiscal year on September 30, appropriators will be focused on moving FY20 spending bills. The House Appropriations Committee held its first FY20 spending bill markup this week in the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee. Over the coming weeks, the Committee and its subcommittees will continue to consider the remaining FY20 bills, while their Senate counterparts have not yet scheduled any markups as they await their top-line funding levels.

Senate Majority Leader McConnell’s (R-KY) top priority for the coming months will be confirming as many of over 100 nominations pending before the Senate as possible, including dozens of judicial nominations. There will also be an effort to address some 30 tax extenders set to expire in the coming months while McConnell and Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) negotiate around raising the debt ceiling before the Treasury Department runs out of so-called extraordinary measures, likely this fall. House Minority Leader McCarthy (R-CA) also announced this week that his caucus will hold a policy retreat September 12-14 in Baltimore.

Consumer Advocates Discuss Privacy Before Senate Commerce Committee

Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation held a hearing entitled “Consumer Perspectives: Policy Principles for a Federal Data Privacy Framework.” The Committee heard from several technology industry stakeholders as well as Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner Helen Dixon. Similar to previous hearings the Committee has convened on the topic, discussion primarily focused on specific provisions to be incorporated into a federal privacy law.

The majority of witnesses encouraged Congress to develop a privacy law that strengthens existing efforts within states. Ms. Dixon did not offer comments on whether a federal privacy law should preempt existing state laws, but explained that the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) provides EU member states the ability to individualize certain privacy standards according to the interests of their population. The committee lacked consensus regarding the issue of federal preemption of state privacy laws. While Democrats supported a federal framework that accommodates existing state efforts, Republicans expressed concern that the lack of harmonization could negatively affect consumer protection.

There was bipartisan consensus amongst members of the Committee, who agreed that a privacy law should contain certain user controls over personal data as well as clear consent standards for personal information. The Committee also agreed that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is the appropriate agency to ensure industry compliance with privacy laws. Chairman Wicker (R-MS) noted that members of the Committee continue to hold discussions in an effort to refine a draft comprehensive federal privacy bill.

House E&C Panel Convenes Hearing on Robocall Bills

This week, the House Energy and Commerce (E&C) Communications and Technology Subcommittee convened a hearing entitled “Legislating to Stop the Onslaught of Annoying Robocalls” to discuss a number of related bills introduced in the lower chamber. The panel considered seven proposals, including measures led by E&C Chairman Pallone (D-NJ), Subcommittee Chairwoman Eshoo (D-CA), Rep. Speier (D-CA), Rep. Crist (D-FL), Subcommittee Ranking Member Latta (R-OH), and Rep. Van Drew (D-NJ). In his opening remarks, Chairman Pallone underscored the importance of addressing robocalls, adding that New Jerseyans filed more complaints about robocalls with the National Do Not Call Registry – per capita – than any other state in the US. “Regulators and industry need better tools to protect consumers, and once again, it is time for Congress act… There’s no one silver bullet, and that’s why it is so important that we address this problem from every side,” Pallone stated.

E&C Ranking Member Greg Walden (R-OR) lauded Chairman Pallone for his bipartisan approach to the hearing, adding that, “by putting our teams together, it is a welcome return to the process we operated under with our friends last Congress that led to many bipartisan successes, one of which specifically sought to address malicious spoofing.”

The discussion follows a Senate Commerce Communications, Technology, Innovation, and the Internet Subcommittee hearing convened last month on “Illegal Robocalls: Calling All To Stop The Scourge.” The hearings also mirror simultaneous efforts at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to combat illegal robocalls under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The FCC has launched several policy initiatives to combat unlawful robocalls and malicious caller ID spoofing, in addition to a number of enforcement actions to punish those in violation of consumer protection laws.

NIST Launches RFI on Federal AI Standards

Late last week, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) launched a Request for Information (RFI) aimed at gathering feedback on federal engagement in the development of technical standards and related tools for artificial intelligence (AI). NIST will highlight these efforts at a workshop to take place May 30 coordinated to engage industry stakeholders and advance the development of federal artificial intelligence standards.

While the draft workshop agenda has yet to be finalized, the event is slated to feature remarks from NIST and White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) officials. Participants will discuss the current state of AI technical standards and tools to support reliable, robust, and trustworthy systems that use AI technologies, as well as potential AI applications within the federal government. 

NIST is organizing the workshop at the direction of President Trump’s February 11 Executive Order on Maintaining American Leadership in Artificial Intelligence. NIST will post all RFI comments received by May 31 to the NIST website here.

Commissioner Starks Supports Bill Targeting Algorithmic Bias

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks is endorsing companion Senate and House bills offered last month by Senators Wyden (D-OR) and Booker (D-NJ) and Rep. Clarke (D-NY) aimed at curbing bias in algorithms as companies increasingly move toward automated systems. The Algorithmic Accountability Act not only authorizes the FTC to issue new regulations that would require companies to conduct impact assessments of automated decision systems, but also requires companies to assess their use of these systems for impacts on accuracy, fairness, bias, discrimination, privacy, and security. Further, companies would be required to correct any issues discovered during impact assessments and also evaluate how their systems protect consumer privacy. The bill includes a carveout exempting businesses with less than $50 million in revenue, unless a company has data on more than one million consumers or consumer devices.

The lawmakers said the bill is a response to recent reports of companies deploying new technologies using algorithms that demonstrate bias against certain groups, including women and minorities. “Algorithms shouldn’t have an exemption from our anti-discrimination laws. Our bill recognizes that algorithms have authors, and without diligent oversight, they can reflect the biases of those behind the keyboard,” said Rep. Clarke. Her bill picked up additional support this week with Reps. Beyer (D-VA), Haaland (D-NM), Norton (D-DC), Sherman (D-CA), and Watson Coleman (D-NJ) signing on as cosponsors.

Starks’ support is rooted in ensuring that 5G will enable artificial intelligence and other new technologies without contributing to bias that will impact data profiles to the detriment of certain consumers.