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Congress can’t get its act together on Big Tech

December 2, 2021, 6:03 PM UTC

Anyone optimistic that Congress will enact substantial legislation to curb the excesses of Silicon Valley should watch Wednesday’s U.S. House hearing on Big Tech accountability.

Over five-plus hours of questions and testimony, legislators railed against tech companies over Hunter Biden’s laptop, abortion pill advertising, and executives’ algorithm-driven greed. 

When they did get to the nitty-gritty of Big Tech regulation, they were often split along two lines: Democrats wanted to increase social media purveyors’ liability for the ills of their product, while Republicans prioritized reducing censorship of conservative viewpoints. Politico has a useful round-up here.

For all the outrage following this fall’s Facebook Files leak engineered by whistleblower Frances Haugen, who testified before the House subcommittee Wednesday, any congressional solutions to social media’s problems once again feel out of reach. 

The hearing provided virtually no evidence that two warring sides—who have combined to pass just 65 bills this year, on track for the lowest total in modern history—can coalesce on a topic rife with culture war issues and implications. While the Democrat-led House could push through legislation with a simple majority, at least 10 Republicans in the Senate would need to support any legislation.

“I find the underlying subject is growing tiring,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., one of the most moderate and even-keeled members of the lower chamber. “We ask social media companies nicely to change their operations for the public good, we hold hearings, we warn of major legislation and regulatory changes, and nothing gives. We nibble around the edges from time to time, usually when major news stories break, but things continue to get worse over time, not better.”

Democratic leaders, for their part, continue to maintain a sunny outlook on Big Tech reforms. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Penn., who chairs the subcommittee that hosted Wednesday’s hearing, told The Washington Post that “we’re not just going to throw bills out” to the House floor that can’t pass the Senate.

But any bill seems a longshot in 2022 without support from Republican Senate leadership, which will hardly be inclined to back Democrat-led legislation ahead of next year’s midterms. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.V., and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., could grease the wheels by reversing their opposition to filibuster reform, but that ship appears to have sailed.

The more likely outcome: national Republicans and, to a lesser extent, Democrats use Big Tech as a wedge issue next November, while state legislatures continue to take the lead in pushing social media regulation and the courts serve as a final arbiter of those laws. 

That dynamic is already playing out in states like Florida and Texas, the latter of which saw a Democrat-appointed federal judge on Wednesday block a Republican-backed law aimed at stopping social media companies from banning users based on their personal opinions.

Congress’ approach to Big Tech regulation only serves to fuel national divisiveness, further politicize the courts and leave the complex task of regulating social media to future generations. And isn’t that exactly what Congress does best?

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Jacob Carpenter

NEWSWORTHY

Dorsey pulls a Zuckerberg. Square, best known as a digital-payments product for small businesses, will change its corporate name next week to Block as the company moves deeper into blockchain, music, and other ventures. The switch will not include any organizational changes, and Block will maintain its SQ stock symbol. Square CEO Jack Dorsey, a cryptocurrency evangelist who resigned as Twitter’s chief executive Monday, said in a statement that Block will “continue to build tools to help increase access to the economy.” Square has promoted blockchain-related projects in the past few months, helping to explain the new name.

Apple expects customers to wait-and-see. Apple is forecasting lower-than-expected demand for the iPhone 13 next year, compounding this year’s device shortage caused by global supply issues, Bloomberg reported Wednesday citing anonymous sources. While Apple still expects record holiday sales, the company is telling suppliers to expect less iPhone 13 demand in 2022 as consumers grapple with the pandemic-rattled economy and wait for the next iPhone iteration, which is expected to arrive later next year. Apple trimmed its 2021 iPhone production target from roughly 90 million to 80 million amid a scarcity of parts. Apple declined to comment to Bloomberg for Wednesday’s article. 

Meta warms to crypto ads. Meta is relaxing some of its cryptocurrency marketing policies, announcing Wednesday that it will allow more companies to market on its Facebook platform, CoinDesk reported. Facebook’s parent company will now accept ads from crypto companies licensed by 25 international organizations and two domestic groups, up from three organizations total in prior years. Meta officials said they are loosening ad regulations because the crypto landscape “continued to mature and stabilize in recent years” as governmental bodies establish more regulations. Facebook has attempted to launch its own crypto-related products, but those efforts have been slow to launch.

Planned Parenthood targeted again. A hacker gained access to networks at Planned Parenthood’s Los Angeles branch in October, taking the personal information of about 400,000 patients in the latest cyberattack on the reproductive health-care and abortion provider, The Washington Post reported Wednesday. Planned Parenthood officials described the hack as a ransomware attack, but they did not specify any demands or whether they paid ransom. It is not yet clear who is responsible for the hack. Hackers hit Planned Parenthood’s Washington, DC, branch in 2020 and the organization’s headquarters in 2015, with an anti-abortion activist taking credit for the latter breach.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

Virtual reality for good. As Meta floods the airwaves to declare that the metaverse is “going to be fun,” one leader in the virtual reality realm foresees a more utilitarian, public-good use for the technology: training people to navigate adrenalin-raising situations. Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, told the audience Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference in Half Moon Bay, Calif., that real-world simulations present one of the best opportunities for metaverse-like developments. Bailenson, who also co-founded VR training startup Strivr, noted that several of the nation’s largest companies employing people in potentially dangerous jobs already use the technology.

From the article:

The key is to use VR for what it’s actually meant for, Bailenson argues. Reading emails in a VR headset, for example, defeats the purpose of it. 

But things that are counterproductive, expensive, or dangerous in the real world constitute perfect use cases for VR. 

FedEx currently uses Strivr to teach its workers how to correctly stack boxes in the truck, which reportedly saves them a million dollars a year per truck. Flight simulators use it for pilot performance reviews. Bank of America and Verizon use it to train associates on how to handle armed robberies.

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BEFORE YOU GO

A real chicken-and-egg question. If a lab-made hamburger looks, smells and tastes like a hamburger, but a cow wasn’t killed to make it, can the hamburger be vegan? It’s an existential question that food engineers are pondering amid growth in the “cultivated meat” market, which uses cells from animals to artificially grow meat-like food. The CEOs of cultivated meat upstarts Air Protein and Upside Foods chewed on the conundrum Wednesday at Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference. Bon appétit.

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