Emerging Technologies Washington Update

January 23, 2020

Pardon Our Dust

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This Week: Spotlight on technology at World Economic Forum, new government report highlights opportunities and challenges for AI in healthcare, 2020 candidates take aim at Section 230, Senate Committee examines 5G workforce, bipartisan transportation and infrastructure members expresses concerns about FCC plans for 5.9 GHz band.

Week in Review

The House of Representatives is in recess this week coinciding with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day holiday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) spent part of the week in Germany, where she led a bipartisan congressional delegation to Auschwitz to mark the 75th anniversary of its liberation.

Today marks the fourth day of the Senate impeachment trial. The trial, which could end as soon as next week, has essentially prevented the chamber from taking up any new legislation. Senators are barred from holding hearings during the trial, as all members must be in the chamber to listen to arguments from both the President’s legal team and Democratic House impeachment managers.

President Trump and several Cabinet members spent the balance of the week in Davos, Switzerland alongside other world and business leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF). During the summit, the US and France reached a temporary truce in the standoff over France’s digital services tax (DST). In exchange for France agreeing to delay digital taxation until the end of 2020, the US dropped its planned retaliatory tariffs on French goods worth up to $2.4 billion and dropped its proposal that a future international tax be optional for companies. The debate is not over, however. Next week, digital tax talks will continue within the global framework of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in Paris.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced this week that it will extend the comment period in the Advanced Driver Assistance Systems Draft Research Test Procedures from January 21 to March 6, 2020.

Looking Ahead

The House will return to Washington next week as the Senate carries on with its impeachment trial. While Senate committee hearings are largely on hold, House committees will resume business as usual and examine topics including US competitiveness in critical technologies and the rise of mobile payments.

On January 30, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on final rules for the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a program to distribute more than $20 billion to help telecom providers expand broadband internet connections in rural areas. The funding, which will be allocated over the next ten years, will not be restricted to phone companies, but also be available to cable providers, public utilities, and wireless companies, which have traditionally been excluded from such government subsidies.

Spotlight on Technology at the World Economic Forum

Technology and technology governance were once again in the spotlight at the World Economic Forum (WEF) this week in Davos, Switzerland. Panels included a discussion with Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai on quantum computing, AI, and technology governance, a conversation on the technology arms race with Huawei CEO Ren Zhengei, and another on regulatory oversight of the technology sector with FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra. Other prominent themes of discussion included rules for digital trade, the antitrust debate, 5G standards, and privacy policies.

On Wednesday, President Trump met with Tim Cook, Satya Nadella, Marc Benioff, and other top technology executives on the sidelines of WEF. The White House said the meeting was an “opportunity to discuss successful economic policies” and included a discussion of new initiatives from the American Workforce Advisory Board. The Board, which is made up of major American employers and led by Ivanka Trump, advises the government on closing the skills gap through job training and education.

New Government Report Highlights Opportunities and Challenges for AI in Healthcare

On January 21, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in conjunction with the National Academy of Medicine assessing the benefits and challenges of machine learning in drug development. Currently only about one out of 10,000 chemical compounds initially tested for drug potential makes it through the research and development pipeline, and is then determined by FDA to be safe and effective and approved for marketing in the US. Machine learning is enabling new insights in the field. Application of AI technology in early drug development, including clinical trial design, might help reduce the costs of drug development and speed up the process. Nonetheless, there are significant challenges, including gaps in research, a lack of high quality data, and difficulty retaining skilled interdisciplinary workers. Another challenge is protecting the privacy of individuals and information from large populations that is used to train machines to generate better outcomes.  

2020 Candidates Take Aim at Section 230

In an interview with the New York Times Editorial Board published last Friday, former Vice President and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called for Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to be “revoked immediately.” Although he has criticized the power and immunity of large technology platforms in the past, this is the first time Biden has voiced support for completely repealing the law. Previously, Biden told CNN in a town hall that Facebook specifically should have its immunity revoked, but he did not extend the same idea to all online platforms.

Similarly, Representative Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) said this week that she will introduce legislation shortly to repeal Section 230. This statement mirrors prior comments from the presidential candidate and her staff. Gabbard’s campaign spokesman previously said that because large technology platforms behave like publishers, they should not be protected if they “allow false, defamatory, libelous articles or advertisements” on their websites.

Andrew Yang has also signaled an interest in reforming Section 230. In a broad policy proposal released in November, Yang stated that he will “amend the Communications Decency Act to reflect the reality of the 21st century.”

Senate Committee Examines 5G Workforce

On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee held a hearing on “The 5G Workforce and Obstacles to Broadband Deployment.” Throughout the hearing, Senators heard from representatives of the FCC, rural broadband trade associations, academia, and tower installers and operators. The discussion largely focused on the need to close the skills gap but also touched on rural broadband and the race to 5G. At times, Senators expressed frustration with the FCC, Department of Education, Department of Labor, and other stakeholders that they see as unconcerned with rural America.

The importance of training and apprenticeships occupied a majority of the discussion. Several Senators argued that rural communities do not have the same access to not only 5G, but broadband generally, due to a lack of tower installers. They thus urged public and private sector stakeholders to help develop programs at both community colleges and high schools that will train students for these jobs and help bring broadband and internet access to rural communities. Witnesses said that getting on the ground in rural areas, assuring job security to prospective workers, and building a stronger marketing presence are all necessary to increase enrollment in 5G workforce training programs and building a more robust broadband network across the country.

Bipartisan Group of Transportation and Infrastructure Members Expresses Concerns about FCC Plans for 5.9 GHz Band

In the ongoing debate regarding the future use of the 5.9 GHz band, a bipartisan group of 38 House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee members, including Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Ranking Member Sam Graves (R-MO), wrote to the FCC this week to express concern regarding the FCC’s plan to redirect more than half the 5.9 GHz band to unlicensed operations. By opening the band up to uses such as WiFi, the letter argues that the FCC is failing to efficiently and effectively harness the band’s potential for uses that serve the public interest.