The Technology 202: Here’s how Biden could force greater accountability in Silicon Valley

Biden is expected to have a very different relationship with Silicon Valley than he had as vice president. 

“The Biden administration knows we need to update our technology regulations for the 21st century,” said Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), who has long called for wide-ranging reform.

Some companies, including Facebook, are scrambling to hire more Democrats after staffing up on Republican lobbyists during the Trump era. “I think for the Internet industry, in particular, it’s going to be tough sledding for the next two years at least,”  Rob Atkinson, the president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank that counts companies including Google and Microsoft on its board, told my colleagues. 

The expectation is that Biden will pick people who will be more aggressive in going after tech to serve in the administration. “For a while, the tech industry took Democrats for granted,” Nu Wexler, a former Facebook, Twitter and Google communications official, told my colleagues. “Now they confront a new political reality. Tech will still be in the crosshairs. But it will be for more substantive things like privacy, data collection and competition.”

A key law that shields social media companies from lawsuits is expected to face scrutiny under Biden. 

President Trump made Section 230, once a little-known Internet law, a target as he sought to challenge social media companies that were limiting or removing his own posts. It’s likely to face a nuanced review under the new administration, my colleague Rachel Lerman reports. 

Democrats have their own reasons for overhauling the law, which protects companies from liability for posts, photos and videos their users share. They believe tech companies should be held more responsible for moderating content on their sites. Many lawmakers have 

“Both sides have really used Section 230 as a proxy for their anger at Big Tech,” Jeff Kosseff, a cybersecurity law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy and the author “The Twenty-Six Words That Created the Internet,” a book about Section 230, told Rachel. 

Biden also is inheriting significant bipartisan momentum to challenge tech giants’ power. 

Democratic control of the White House and Congress could force reforms to competition laws governing large tech companies’ business practices, as I wrote. Federal regulators are expected to continue to pursue lawsuits brought against Google and Facebook in the Trump era, and it’s possible that they could also bring lawsuits against more tech giants. 

The recent violence at the Capitol and its aftermath is adding fresh urgency, as tech platforms’ role in amplifying violent rhetoric highlights the industry’s broad power and influence over American democracy.

“Basically, the Biden administration is inheriting a lot of momentum and a big opportunity to make online communications safe for democracy and fair in the commercial sphere,” said Sarah Miller, who leads the American Economic Liberties Project, told me in an interview.

Meanwhile, Internet regulation is taking on greater urgency amid the pandemic. 

The Biden administration will face immediate pressure to address access to home broadband, which has become essential for many people working or learning remotely during the pandemic, Tony and I report. 

That could set the stage for Democrats to finally make good on a long-standing effort to increase federal funding for Internet access. 

“Broadband access and deployment should be in every recovery package, in every infrastructure package,” said Sen. Ron Wyden (Ore.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, whose work has paved the way for emergency broadband rebates. “That’s something you can really move in the next few weeks.”

With a Federal Communication Commission is under Democratic control and victories in the Georgia Senate runoffs, Democrats are also well-positioned to undo some of Trump’s efforts to deregulate the Internet. Democrats have criticized the Trump administration’s efforts to dismantle Obama-era net neutrality rules, which required AT&T, Verizon and other service providers to treat all Internet traffic equally —

Lawmakers and activists are pressuring the incoming attorney general to immediately withdraw from a federal lawsuit challenging California’s net neutrality law. 

The future of gig workers such as Uber drivers is expected to emerge as a divisive labor issue. 

The Biden administration called for gig workers to be classified as employees — and enjoy the benefits and protections that come with that status. But those intraparty divisions and narrow Democratic majorities in both chambers could make that difficult to achieve. 

A recent California statewide ballot, called Proposition 22, was also a blow to efforts to reclassify drivers. It was the result of tech companies funneling millions to fight a law that defined many app workers as employees. 

The Labor Department and other agencies could take swift actions to support gig workers. They could reinterpret their work as employment at the federal or IRS level. They could also pursue stronger enforcement and legal options. 

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Misinformation about election fraud declined 73 percent after major social media firms suspended Trump and top allies, research shows.

The new research by San Francisco-based Zignal Labs reported that online conversations about election fraud dropped from 2.5 million mentions to 688,000 mentions across several social media sites the week after Trump was banned from Twitter. The findings highlight that tech companies can limit misinformation when they choose to take aggressive steps, my colleagues Elizabeth Dwoskin and Craig Timberg report. 

The findings also showed how falsehoods flow across social media sites – and are an early sign that concerted action against misinformation can make a difference. Facebook indefinitely suspended Trump, YouTube suspended him for a week, and he and his supporters also lost accounts on Snapchat, Twitch, Spotify, Shopify and others. 

Tech companies also took significant actions by social media sites to limit the spread of incendiary or false content. Twitter banned more than 70,000 accounts affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory, which played a role in fomenting the siege at the Capitol on Jan. 6. 

“Together, those actions will likely significantly reduce the amount of online misinformation in the near term,” Kate Starbird, disinformation researcher at the University of Washington, told my colleagues. “What happens in the long term is still up in the air.”

Hashtags affiliated with the Capitol violence also plummeted. Mentions of the hashtag #FightforTrump, which was widely deployed across Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other social media services in the week before the rally, dropped 95 percent. #HoldTheLine and the term “March for Trump” also fell more than 95 percent. 

Tearful meetings, bitter internal arguments and years of debate marked Twitter’s historic decision to ban Trump. 

A dozen current and former employees and close observers of the company reconstructed the most difficult decision in the company’s 15-year history. Two days after the violence at the Capitol, Vijaya Gadde, spoke to 5,200 coworkers over video conference and pleaded with them to have patience while her team considered whether to ban the president. 

At the emergency meeting, a visibly emotional Gadde explained that the teams making the decision were working hard and that some were doing so while facing serious security threats. She said that the company was still conducting an investigation process over the impact of the tweets.

Some employees were skeptical. “People are fed up. They were like, ’You’re crying, but I’m crying too, so now what?’” an employee said.

Employees left the meeting with mixed emotions, ranging from concerns about their colleagues’ safety to anger that Trump was back online after a 12-hour ban. He had already tweeted again, telling his followers they were patriots who wouldn’t be disrespected. 

Three hours after the emergency meeting, the company banned Trump forever. 

A Washington nonprofit sued Apple to remove the app Telegram for failing to crackdown on violent conversation. 

The suit is a pressure tactic to force Apple to take the same step it took to limit Parler, a social media site that became a conduit for calls for violence ahead of the Capitol siege, my colleagues Craig Timberg, Reed Albergotti and Gerrit De Vynck report. The Coalition for a Safer Web, a nonpartisan group that advocates for the removal of extremist content from social media, and the coalition’s president, Marc Ginsberg, filed the suit. 

The suit complained about the chat and social media app’s role in hosting white supremacist, neo-Nazi and other hateful content. They argued in the lawsuit that such content puts Telegram in violation of Apple’s terms of service for its app store.

The coalition is planning a similar suit against Google, which also blocked Parler from its store. 

“Telegram stands out by itself as the superspreader [of hateful speech], even compared to Parler,” Ginsberg said in an interview.

Ginsberg, who is Jewish, argues in the suit that the ani-Semitic content fostered on Parler puts him in danger, and his ownership of an iPhone gives him standing to sue Apple in federal court. 

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