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State AGs join DOJ, FTC, Congress to fight price-gouging


With help from Leah Nylen, John Hendel and Cristiano Lima

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— State AGs press tech CEOs: The DOJ, FTC and members of Congress are already using their authority to take on price-gouging and hoarding of coronavirus supplies. Now, 33 state attorneys general are doing the same.

— Gig win: Self-employed, contract and gig economy workers will receive expanded unemployment benefits under the Senate’s $2 trillion bipartisan emergency relief package.

— Kids and Covid: Education groups contend the latest coronavirus stimulus relief deal doesn’t do nearly enough to address the “homework gap,” while privacy groups separately sound the alarm on how tech and ed-tech platforms might collect and commercialize students’ data.

IT’S THURSDAY; WELCOME TO MORNING TECH. I’m your host, Alexandra Levine. Scrounging around already for weekend quarantine plans? Us too. Elton John is hosting a “living room concert” on Sunday, featuring performances by Alicia Keys, the Backstreet Boys, Billie Eilish, Mariah Carey and others — filmed from their homes. More info here from iHeartMedia and FOX.

Got a news tip? Write Alex at [email protected] or @Ali_Lev. An event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. Anything else? Full team info below. And don’t forget: add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.

COMPANIES NEED TO STOP ONLINE PRICE-GOUGING, AGs SAY — Amazon, Craigslist, eBay, Facebook and Walmart need to more rigorously police their online marketplaces to prevent price-gouging, 33 state attorneys general said in joint letters Wednesday. “Ripping off consumers by jacking up prices in the middle of a public emergency is against the law and online resellers like Amazon must join in this fight,” said Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, who led the effort.

— But what are those price-gouging laws?: Thirty states have laws that bar price-gouging during states of emergency. On Monday, President Donald Trump signed an executive order that will allow the Justice Department to investigate and bring cases to prevent hoarding. Attorney General William Barr has set up a task force, headed by New Jersey U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito, to take on hoarding and price-gouging.

— The FTC could also bring cases over price-gouging under its authority to challenge unfair practices, former FTC Chairman Bill Kovacic told POLITICO, though the agency has never done so. House Democrats proposed giving the FTC and states additional power to target price-gouging in their version of the coronavirus bill, though the language didn’t make the Senate version. Sens. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) have also introduced two bills that would let the FTC tackle price-gouging.

Companies respond: Amazon said that as of Monday it had pulled down about 500,000 items off its marketplace and banned 3,900 sellers for price-gouging. EBay has banned listings for health care masks, sanitizer and disinfecting wipes to prevent price-gouging, and is removing listings that specifically reference coronavirus or Covid-19. “eBay is taking significant measures to block or quickly remove items on our marketplace that make false health claims,” the company said. “We are making every effort to ensure that anyone who sells on our platform follows local laws and eBay policies.”

— Automated de-listings: Walmart said its pricing policy forbids price-gouging and the company automatically depublishes listings that price items substantially in excess of other listings. Facebook said it is also removing listings for masks, hand sanitizer, disinfecting wipes and Covid-19 testing kits. “While enforcement is not perfect, we have put several automated detection mechanisms in place to block or remove this material from our platform,” a Facebook spokesperson said. Craigslist didn’t respond to requests about its price-gouging efforts.

GIG WORKERS’ BIG SENATE WIN — Gig economy workers would receive expanded unemployment benefits under a $2 trillion bipartisan emergency relief package approved by the Senate late Wednesday night, notching a key win for tech employees reeling during the coronavirus outbreak. The deal expands unemployment insurance benefits to include self-employed, contract and gig economy workers, while boosting their weekly benefits by $600. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told colleagues in a letter early Wednesday the bill “ensures that laid-off workers, on average, will receive their full pay for four months.”

— The provision — and the entire deal — was temporarily in limbo on Wednesday as a group of Republican senators mounted a last-minute challenge to the unemployment insurance language, particularly the $600 weekly boost, but the push was defeated. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said the lower chamber will vote on the bill via voice vote Friday.

— Footnote: Rideshare Drivers United and the Transport Workers Union launched an online wage claim tool to help gig drivers process claims for unpaid wages and business expenses through the California Labor Commission.

STIMULUS BILL LEAVES CONNECTIVITY ON THE CURB Although the relief deal provides a $200 million boost for FCC telehealth efforts, as John reported Wednesday, along with funding for USDA broadband efforts, it failed to include billions of dollars to keep students and others connected during the pandemic — and supporters of that spending were quick to cry foul.

— “I cannot understand how the U.S. Senate can approve a $2 trillion emergency package and not find even $1 billion to ensure that every school child in America can connect to the internet on a functioning device at a time when virtually all students in the country are required to learn from home for their own safety,” lamented Common Sense founder Jim Steyer, who supported at least $2 billion going to support the FCC’s E-Rate program. “This decision will leave kids behind and unfairly impact those most in need.”

— “This is a political farce, and a tragedy for tens of millions of people who are already disconnected during this time of crisis, to say nothing of the tens of millions more who could lose their income and, with it, their ability to pay for internet connections in the coming days,” said Free Press’ Matt Wood, who had pushed for far grander broadband spending ambitions.

AND WHAT ABOUT KIDS’ PRIVACY? — Now’s the time for the FTC to investigate how tech and ed-tech platforms are collecting and commercializing children’s data, kid and privacy advocates say in a letter today, as the virus forces kids online both to study and to socialize.

— The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and the Center for Digital Democracy are urging the FTC to use its “Rule 6(b) authority” to subpoena companies like Zoom, TikTok, Disney, Google and Apple for information on their practices around young users. The letter, submitted by Georgetown Law’s Institute for Public Representation, suggests a list of questions for the FTC to use when probing the companies.

— “With schools closed across the country, American families are more dependent than ever on digital media to educate and occupy their children,” said the campaign’s executive director, Josh Golin. “It’s now urgent that the FTC use its full authority to shed light on the business models of the edtech and children’s digital media industries so we can understand what Big Tech knows about our children and what they are doing with that information.”

— COPPA author Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), along with Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), earlier this week pressed the FTC and the Department of Education to provide privacy guidance to ed-tech companies that are suddenly seeing an unprecedented surge in usage. “Student privacy must not fall by the wayside as the current pandemic moves learning from the classroom to online offering at home,” the senators wrote in a letter.

Sign up for POLITICO Nightly: Coronavirus Special Edition, your daily update on how the illness is affecting politics, markets, public health and more.

FCC EXTENDS NET NEUTRALITY COMMENT DEADLINE — Update your calendars: The FCC has approved a 21-day extension to its comment cycle on net neutrality to April 20. The commission, MT readers may recall, is collecting public input on some aspects of its 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality regulations, such as the implication on public safety. It’s seeking these comments as a result of a federal appeals court ruling last year.

— Several net neutrality advocates had said more time was necessary due to the pandemic. “Speak up!” tweeted Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has urged an extension of all comment deadlines. “Because if you thought an open internet was a luxury before, the current crisis is showing it’s a necessity.”

Koren Wong-Ervin, director of antitrust policy and litigation at Qualcomm, is joining the law firm Axinn as a partner. … Kemah Dennis-Morial, a former senior adviser to Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.), is now director of public affairs at AT&T.

Warehouse woes: “Amazon workers on Wednesday accused their employer of doing dangerously little to prevent the spread of the coronavirus at warehouses — especially in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, where multiple Amazon workers have tested positive,” Ian Kullgren reports for Pros.

And ICYMI: The Washington Post is keeping a running tally on how many Amazon warehouses are swimming with coronavirus infections. As of Tuesday night: At least 10, including two in New York City.

Tech for good: IBM and The Weather Channel teamed up to launch a free tool to track reported coronavirus cases, The Hill reports.

And: As the coronavirus keeps concerts and music tours from happening for weeks if not months, Amazon Music, Facebook, SiriusXM and Pandora, Spotify, YouTube Music and other tech and streaming services are contributing to the MusiCares COVID-19 Relief Fund.

One more: Chinese telecom giant Huawei has donated 2 million face masks and dozens of computer tablets to health care workers across Europe, POLITICO Europe reports.

Speaking of Huawei: The Commerce Department is extending until April 22 a public comment period on the future of a temporary waiver that allows U.S. companies to continue to do limited business with the sanctioned Chinese company.

Virtual government: “OPM directs agencies to hire, administer oath with digital tools,” FedScoop writes.

Media matters: BuzzFeed is cutting pay between 5 percent and 25 percent for employees at every level of the company as it tries to weather the fallout from the pandemic, The Daily Beast reports.

And ‘corona casualties in start-up land’: A running list of start-ups that have laid off staff because of coronavirus, via Twitter thread by NYT’s start-ups and venture capital reporter.

Postponed: The FCC auction of 5G-friendly, 3.5 GHz airwaves, John reports for Pros.

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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