Emerging Technologies Washington Update

July 18, 2019

Pardon Our Dust

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This Week: House, Senate Judiciary Subcommittees continue to scrutinize online platforms, House Oversight examines federal government’s approach to cloud services, Senate Committee holds hearing on electric battery production, Energy and Commerce Leaders raise concerns over commerce, FCC infighting, FAA carves out national security and law enforcement operations from ADS-B out requirement.

Week in Review

The House and Senate are both in session this week as the August recess approaches and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin continue to negotiate a path towards raising the debt ceiling, which Mnuchin is urging Congress to do before leaving Washington for the summer. Mnuchin said this morning that they have reached an agreement on a two-year deal to increase budget caps and to raise the debt limit and that discussions are now focused on offsets. The Speaker called it a “path” to agreement.

This week, the House passed a three-year intelligence reauthorization 397-31 before turning to the Raise the Wage Act, which aims to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 by 2025. The bill passed this afternoon, 231-199. The Energy and Commerce Committee marked up nearly 30 bills yesterday across its jurisdiction, touching on everything from prescription drug pricing to product safety and combating abusive robocalls. The Senate Aging Committee also held a hearing yesterday focused on robocall fraud focused on the impact on senior citizens.

As lawmakers continue to express concerns about so-called “deepfakes,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) wrote to the CEOs of Facebook, Google, and Twitter this week asking for information about how these platforms plan to address the realistic fake videos and images and other false content, particularly ahead of the 2020 elections. Reps. Kilmer (D-WA), King (R-NY), Murphy (D-FL), and Hurd (R-TX) also introduced legislation late last month to require the Department of Homeland Security to publish an annual report on the use of deepfake technology. Senator Portman (R-OH) introduced a bipartisan companion bill earlier this month.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate continues to consider pending nominations, including judicial and ambassadorial nominations, as well as a series of tax treaties. On Monday, Senators Cruz (R-TX) and Hawley (R-MO) wrote a letter to the FTC urging the Commission to use 6(b) authority to investigate how major tech companies, namely Facebook, Twitter, and Google, curate content. The letter preceded a hearing in Cruz’s Senate Judiciary subcommittee on “Google and Censorship through Search Engines” (see below for additional details). Meanwhile, Hawley and Senators Blumenthal (D-CT) and Markey (D-MA) wrote to the FTC on Tuesday calling its reported $5 billion settlement with Facebook for violating users’ privacy “woefully inadequate” and asking for information on the Commission’s decisionmaking.

On Tuesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Ranking Member Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced the Bot Disclosure and Accountability Act, which authorizes the FTC to enforce transparency requirements on social media companies regarding the use of bots that replicate human activity and prohibits candidates, campaigns, and political organizations from using bots to disguise political advertising or deceive voters by giving the false impression of support from actual humans. The bill currently has no cosponsors. Elsewhere, Senate Judiciary Committee member Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) hosted the first in a bimonthly series of tech roundtables on Thursday as part of a new Committee task force she announced last week during the White House social media summit. The task force is expected to focus on issues including competition, privacy, and allegations of anti-conservative bias.

President Trump kicked off the week by hosting a Made in America showcase at the White House, during which he signed an executive order on Maximizing Use of American-Made Goods, Products, and Materials. He hosted a Cabinet meeting on Tuesday and was scheduled to meet later in the day with Republican congressional leadership, but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute. On Wednesday, he held a rally in North Carolina.

Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin held a briefing on Monday at the White House during which he said that the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) is pursuing additional enforcement actions related to cryptocurrency. He also expressed concerns about Facebook’s plans to launch a digital currency ahead of a pair of related hearings in the Senate Banking and House Financial Services Committees on Tuesday and Wednesday. Elsewhere, the Pentagon announced on Monday that it is establishing a Joint Artificial Intelligence (AI) Center under its new Digital Modernization Strategy in order to keep pace with AI capabilities in the private sector.

The FTC announced this week that it is seeking comments on whether or not amendments to the Children’s Online Privacy Protection (COPPA) Rule are necessary to reflect changes in technology since the agency last made updates in 2013. The FTC will also host a public workshop on October 7 to discuss COPPA and its effectiveness.

Looking Ahead

Provided conversations between Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Speaker Pelosi (D-CA) continue towards a two-year deal to raise budget caps and the debt limit, both Chambers can be expected to vote next week to avoid hitting the ceiling during the August recess. In addition, Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) will endeavor to confirm as many pending nominations before the recess as possible, which will likely include Mark Esper’s nomination to be Secretary of Defense and Steve Dickson’s nomination to be Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. He will also bring up legislation to reauthorize the 9/11 Victims Compensation Fund, which the House passed last Friday 402-12. Senator Paul (R-KY) objected to an effort to bring the bill to the floor this week.

The House plans to take up H.R. 397, Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act, and H.R. 2203, the Homeland Security Improvement Act, as well as a number of suspension bills to be announced tomorrow. Chairman Pallone (D-NJ) also suggested after the House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously advanced the Stopping Bad Robocalls Act on Wednesday that the bill could come to the floor next week.

President Trump will host Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan at the White House on Monday.

House, Senate Judiciary Subcommittees Continue to Scrutinize Online Platforms

On Tuesday, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution convened a hearing entitled “Google and Censorship through Search Engines” to discuss Google’s content moderation practices and address allegations of anti-conservative bias within the technology industry. Subcommittee Chairman Cruz (R-TX) convened the hearing in follow up to a previous hearing in April entitled “Stifling Free Speech: Technological Censorship and the Public Discourse,” during which the Subcommittee discussed Facebook and Twitter content moderation practices.

In his opening remarks, Cruz noted that Google employees create and maintain the company’s algorithms, giving certain individuals a significant amount of power to ban certain speech and shape culture in a manner that is counter to conservative speakers. He emphasized the need for greater industry transparency and suggested Congress should revisit liability protections that technology companies receive through Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) given concerns regarding the political neutrality of online platforms.

In response, Ranking Member Hirono (D-HI) criticized Committee leadership for convening another hearing to discuss alleged anti-conservative biases by technology companies. She noted these claims are not substantiated by existing research, citing studies conducted by independent entities that found no evidence of anti-conservative bias on Google’s platforms. Further, Hirono noted that the continued allegations of anti-conservative bias deter technology companies from removing truly harmful content from their platforms for fear of Republicans labeling them as “anti-conservative.”

While Democratic senators disputed Republican allegations that Google’s algorithms contain anti-conservative biases, Subcommittee members agreed that the company’s algorithm fails effectively to moderate third-party content. Members also agreed that Congress should evaluate the efficacy of strengthening current federal authorities to regulate the technology industry. Google Vice President for Government Affairs and Policy Karan Bhatia reiterated that Google continues to test and refine its algorithms to provide safe, neutral platforms for consumers.

At the same time, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Antitrust Subcommittee held the second in a series of hearings on Online Platforms and Market Power, this one focused on Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Democrats, led by Chairman Cicilline (D-RI), were highly critical of what they consider market domination on the part of Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple, representatives of which testified during the session. Republicans demonstrated various degrees of concern, with Ranking Member Sensenbrenner (R-WI) cautioning that big is not necessarily bad. Specific areas of questioning focused on the role of each company represented in the technology industry, as well as specific questions about competition in social media, search, and app stores and digital advertising. For more on the Subcommittee’s first hearing, click here.

House Oversight Examines Federal Government’s Approach to Cloud Services

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Government Operations held a hearing entitled “To the Cloud! The Cloudy Role of FedRAMP in IT Modernization.” Chairman Connolly (D-VA) and Ranking Member Meadows (R-NC) both noted reduced redundancies for cloud service approval since the adoption of the Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program (FedRAMP) in 2011, but sought feedback on FedRAMP from public and private sector industry stakeholders. The information and suggestions given at the hearing will advise the Subcommittee in drafting legislation to codify and improve FedRAMP.

While all panelists agreed that FedRAMP can be improved, the private sector stakeholder witnesses were more critical of the program than federal agency representatives from the General Services Administration (GSA), Department of Defense (DOD), Department of Justice (DOJ), and Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). There was also bipartisan criticism of FedRAMP; Subcommittee members sought suggestions to improve the program to increase FedRAMP implementation, efficiently streamline the process, and reduce costs for agencies and cloud service providers. The private sector witnesses recommended increased industry stakeholder engagement in the FedRAMP process, including potentially creating an industry advisory board in legislation.

Senate Committee Holds Hearing on Electric Battery Production

The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on Wednesday entitled “Electric Battery Production and Waste: Opportunities and Challenges.” Committee members and panelists agreed that China dominates the electric battery production industry and electric vehicle business, many arguing that the United States has not done enough to gain any ground in the field. Many Committee members also questioned panelists on the environmental and human rights challenges in mining and emphasized the need for the United States to prioritize ethical practices as the country endeavors to increase domestic battery production.

Panelists and Committee members pushed for recycling lithium batteries as the best option for advancement in the United States, noting the job market it would also create. Additionally, Committee members suggested that the United States should have greater control over the electric battery supply chain, adding that more materials should be produced domestically, rather than relying on foreign imports.

Energy and Commerce Leaders Raise Concerns Over Commerce, FCC Infighting

This week, a June 25 letter from Secretary of Commerce Ross to Senator Johnson (R-WI) surfaced revealing tension between the Department of Commerce and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) related to ongoing FCC spectrum auctions and 5G deployment. In the letter, written in response to a June 24 letter from Johnson, Secretary Ross defended National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) studies that raise concerns with 5G systems operating in the 24 GHz band potentially interfering with NOAA weather prediction and forecasting satellites. “Given the potential harm that disrupting accurate weather forecasting could have on the safety of our communities, it is vital that decisionmakers consider the objective facts regarding the NOAA/NASA analysis of interference from 5G systems operating in the 24 GHz band,” Ross writes. The letter comes after FCC Chairman Pai argued during a June 12 Senate Commerce FCC oversight hearing that the NOAA/NASA study is fundamentally flawed.

Lawmakers criticized the agency infighting during a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing Tuesday on “Our Wireless Future: Building a Comprehensive Approach to Spectrum Policy.” Both Democrats and Republicans raised concerns with the lack of coordination, with Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chairman Doyle (D-PA) stating that he is “deeply concerned that this process is broken down and that American people are going to be the ones that suffer.” Full Committee Chairman Pallone (D-NJ) added, “this lack of coordination affects a mind-numbing list of important bands of spectrum…The process has completely broken down,” while Ranking Member Walden (R-OR) echoed these concerns, adding that he plans to express his dissatisfaction with the public disagreements. 

FAA Carves Out National Security and Law Enforcement Operations from ADS-B Out Requirement

In today’s Federal Register, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) published an interim final rule, Revision to Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) Out Equipment and Use Requirements, to modify the requirement that all aircraft equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast Out (ADS-B Out) must transmit at all times to except from this requirement sensitive operations by Federal, State, and local governments pertaining to national defense, intelligence, homeland security, and law enforcement. Comments are due by September 16. The interim final rule also provides authority to Air Traffic Control (ATC) to direct not-transmittal of ADS-B Out as well as transponder transmission when transmitting would jeopardize the safe execution of ATC functions. The FAA states that this interim final rule is not expected to have any impact on manned aviation or unmanned aircraft system integration efforts.