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Google affiliate Verily raises privacy concerns in Washington

With help from John Hendel and Leah Nylen

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— Privacy and the pandemic: Verily, the Google affiliate that launched a website to aid in the Bay Area’s coronavirus fight, stressed its commitment to privacy as lawmakers question how the site might use patient data in the future.

— Addressing the ‘infodemic’: A science and tech policy hub led by Facebook’s former director of public policy is out with guidelines on how tech companies and the government should coordinate and share information during a pandemic.

— More telecom countermeasures: California Rep. Doris Matsui is urging the FCC to expand federal telecom subsidies to help low-income households stay connected amid the outbreak.

IT’S THURSDAY; WELCOME TO MORNING TECH. I’m your host, Alexandra Levine.

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VERILY (NOT GOOGLE) PLEDGES PRIVACY — Verily, the Google life sciences affiliate that launched the much-discussed Bay Area coronavirus-screening website, stressed its commitment to privacy after senators sounded the alarm on how the company might use individuals’ information for commercial purposes or with third parties. A spokesperson maintained that the data will not be used for advertising and that Verily “will only retain the data as long as necessary to fulfill the purposes of the baseline COVID-19 testing program, or unless the individual separately authorizes further retention and use of information.”

— After President Donald Trump’s somewhat oversold announcement of Verily’s pilot local website, the company also made a point of saying it is not the same as Google. (Google has had to fend off similar criticism for Project Nightingale, its patient data sharing program with the health giant Ascension.) “Google, which is a separate entity, is not collecting or retaining user information, but Verily does use Google infrastructure to safely store and protect the information,” said Verily’s head of communications, Carolyn Wang. She added that any data collected for screening is “not linked to any of Google’s products without your explicit consent.”

MANAGING THE COVID-19 ‘INFODEMIC’ — Censorship, false claims and legal hurdles to information sharing are among the issues that tech companies and the government should address if they are to cooperate during pandemics, according to recommendations out this morning from Duke’s Center on Science & Technology Policy. (The center is run by Facebook’s former director of public policy, Matt Perault.) Read them here.

— The brief explores how China’s restrictions on information during the early weeks of the outbreak contributed to its powerful global surge, and to the “infodemic” (in the words of the World Health Organization) that ensued. It says Congress, the State Department and the WHO should “investigate and highlight the role of government censorship in allowing the COVID-19 virus to spread.”

— Among the other recs: Congress, social media companies and epidemiologists should “develop a legal framework that allows the sharing of information between tech platforms and digital epidemiology projects,” and the FTC and FDA should “pursue enforcement actions against companies who advertise false coronavirus treatments.”

— And a footnote on the ‘infodemic’: About half of Americans say they’ve seen some fake news related to the coronavirus, according to the Pew Research Center.

LIFELINE AMID THE PANDEMIC Matsui (D-Calif.) fired off a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai on Wednesday seeking an expansion of the agency’s Lifeline telecom subsidy program for low-income households as a way to counter the coronavirus pandemic. The FCC’s recent steps to ensure Lifeline connectivity “will not do anything to assist Americans that become eligible for Lifeline or other qualifying assistance programs due to a loss in work or drop in income,” the senior Energy and Commerce lawmaker wrote, urging the commission to “explore measures to grant provisional approvals for Lifeline subscribers as they become eligible directly or via qualifying support programs.” Senate Democrats, meanwhile, nudged the FCC to do more on telehealth.

— What we’re watching: Congress and the FCC are engaged in much wider discussions about ways to fund remote learning and telehealth efforts, all part of a sprawling and amorphous set of COVID-19 countermeasures coming together, as John reported Wednesday for Pros. And the FCC has begun sharing funding ideas with House appropriators, a spokeswoman for Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) confirmed, adding that no formal requests have come in yet.

— The parts are moving quickly, however, and it’s still not entirely clear what could get drawn in as lawmakers wind up for action. “We are examining all options to ensure that all Americans have the connectivity they need throughout this crisis,” E&C telecom subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) told John in a statement. A House E&C Republican spokesperson confirmed to John that the panel is “working with the FCC to figure out how we can use our resources most effectively for those who need them most as we work towards long-term policies to close the digital divide” and expressed an interest in helping both rural and urban communities struggling with COVID-19 at home.

— The FCC, meanwhile, signed off on a request from Verizon that will boost its network capacity in the short term, another step aimed at helping consumers during the pandemic.

GUESS WHO’S BACK, BACK, BACK? FOX, ON TWITTER — After 500 days of radio silence, Fox News has returned to Twitter to alert its 18.5 million followers that it will offer viewers free, unlimited access to national and local news during the coronavirus crisis. (The Murdoch empire also recently launched the site CoronavirusNOW.com.)

— Why so silent? Before resuming biz-as-usual on Twitter on Wednesday, Fox News (and others under the Fox umbrella, like Fox Business) had effectively boycotted the social media platform in 2018 after anti-fascist demonstrators posted tweets with Tucker Carlson’s home address, prompting people to show up at his doorstep and threaten the TV host.

— Rupert Murdoch’s Twitter hiatus has run even longer: “No more tweets for ten days or ever!” he declared in his last post, in 2016. Murdoch has long criticized social media companies for what he views as taking advantage of the news industry; tech platforms have also, more broadly, faced accusations (from Trump and his supporters) of anti-conservative bias.

COMPETITION CORNER: GARBAGE DEAL DELAYED In what seems a likely omen for antitrust reviews affecting the tech industry, mammoth waste and recycling company Waste Management said its $4.9 billion merger with smaller rival Advanced Disposal Services probably won’t be finished until June, according to a securities filing Wednesday. The companies are still waiting for the Justice Department to take an in-depth look at the merger — and DOJ, which moved its antitrust prosecutors to telework this week, has said it would probably need at least an extra month for antitrust reviews of pending deals. This is unlikely to be the last deal delayed for reasons related to the coronavirus.

ANTITRUST CASES DECLINE — Only 521 federal antitrust suits were filed in fiscal 2019, the lowest number of cases in a half-decade, according to stats published this week by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. The 2019 numbers — which count federal antitrust suits filed during the 12-month period that ended Sept. 30 — are down 6.5 percent over the previous fiscal year. That’s also down about 32 percent from the number of cases filed in fiscal 2015.

TikTok announced the inaugural members of its content advisory council, which will “advise on moderation policies like children’s safety, hate speech, misinformation and bullying,” John reports for Pros; here they are. … K.J. Bagchi, former senior counsel for telecommunications, technology and media at Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, has joined New America’s Open Technology Institute as senior policy counsel. … Jenny Thibodeau will at the end of this month move within Amazon Web Services to become policy counsel to the vice president of global public policy. … The Center for a New American Security launched the Technology Alliance Project, focused on coordinating multinational technology policy. … The State Educational Technology Directors Association launched the SETDA Coalition for eLearning “to provide best practices and a framework to ensure students can continue learning away from brick and mortar schools” during the outbreak, said the group’s executive director, Candice Dodson.

ICYMI: “Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that his company is stepping up its efforts to combat misinformation about the coronavirus — but has not received requests from governments worldwide to turn over its users’ data,” POLITICO reports.

COVID highlights labor inequities: Zuck also said Facebook would pay $1,000 in cash to its 45,000 employees to offset the financial burden of the coronavirus, but that payout does not apply to the company’s tens of thousands of contract workers, The Intercept reports.

Plus: Gig economy workers are notably left out of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “aggressive action in recent days to provide worker protections and financial support to New Yorkers impacted by coronavirus,” POLITICO reports.

Tech for good: “The FDA is so desperate for information about shortages in coronavirus testing supplies that it is turning to an unlikely source of information: Twitter,” POLITICO reports.

Disinfo monitor: Russian trolls are spreading falsehoods about the coronavirus in Europe, POLITICO Europe reports.

Content moderation update: Twitter said late Monday it would require users to remove content that could place people at a higher risk of transmitting COVID-19.

Happening today: The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s meeting on digital taxation (albeit with the help of remote conferencing technology), POLITICO reports — the discussions will have implications for American tech giants like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.

Senate snail mail: In a letter to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) raised alarm about potential government plans to use Americans’ smartphone location data to address the coronavirus: “I urge you to balance privacy with any data-driven solutions to the current public health crisis.”

And another one: Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) wrote a letter calling on the Bureau of Prisons, which has suspended visits to slow the spread of the pandemic, to allow free videoconferencing and phone calls for inmates.

And since we’re all wondering: “Why Congress isn’t working remotely due to COVID-19,” via TechCrunch.

Musk’s latest misstep: Despite opposition from Elon Musk, Tesla’s Fremont, Calif., production plant was forced to shutter during the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place edict, The Mercury News reports. How will that affect the future of the company?

Opinion: Republican FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr says Twitter is censoring speech by passing it off as manipulated media. “Social-media companies should get out of the speech-police business,” he writes in the WSJ. “It opens them up to political pressure and accusations of arbitrariness and bias.”

Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Bob King ([email protected], @bkingdc), Nancy Scola ([email protected], @nancyscola), Steven Overly ([email protected], @stevenoverly), John Hendel ([email protected], @JohnHendel), Cristiano Lima ([email protected], @viaCristiano), Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected], @Ali_Lev), and Leah Nylen ([email protected], @leah_nylen).

TTYL and go wash your hands.

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