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Hillicon Valley: Uber, Lyft sued in California | Ratcliffe refuses to say whether Russian interference favored Trump | Facebook takes down QAnon conspiracy accounts | Airbnb cuts workforce


Welcome to Hillicon Valley, The Hill’s newsletter detailing all you need to know about the tech and cyber news from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley. If you don’t already, be sure to sign up for our newsletter with this LINK.

Welcome! Follow our cyber reporter, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and tech reporter, Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills), for more coverage.

UBER, LYFT IN HOT WATER: California Attorney General Xavier BecerraXavier BecerraOVERNIGHT ENERGY: States sue Trump over rollback of water protections | Fossil fuel companies get coronavirus aid | Conservative group sues Trump over mileage standards States sue Trump administration over rollback of Obama-era water protections Judge says California law requiring background checks to purchase ammo violates the Second Amendment MORE (D) and a group of city attorneys filed a lawsuit against Uber and Lyft on Tuesday, alleging they have broken state laws by classifying their drivers as independent contractors rather than employees.

The law, known as AB 5, requires companies to classify their workers as full employees if the firm has control over how they perform tasks or if the tasks are a routine part of the company’s core business.

Company pushback: Uber and Lyft are among the gig companies operating in California that have resisted the law, which went into effect on January. Uber has claimed its core business is technology, rather than rides.

The lawsuit filed in San Francisco County Superior Court seeks to compel the ride-sharing giants to classify drivers as full employees, demanding civil penalties and restitution for drivers.

The back wages and penalties could add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

“California has ground rules with rights and protections for workers and their employers,” Becerra said in a statement.

“We intend to make sure that Uber and Lyft play by the rules.” 

Drivers classified as contractors are not guaranteed access to basic employee protections such as a guaranteed minimum wage, sick leave, unemployment insurance or the right to organize.

Read more about the lawsuit here.

 

RATCLIFFE DOESN’T TAKE A STAND: Rep. John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeThis week: Senate returns amid coronavirus pandemic The ‘new normal’ takes shape on Capitol Hill McConnell’s Senate agenda for next week focuses on nominees and pandemic MORE (R-Texas), President TrumpDonald John TrumpCNN demands Trump campaign stop using ‘distorted’ clip from network in ad Schumer: Fauci may testify before Senate next week Fauci dismisses ‘circular argument’ coronavirus originated in Chinese lab MORE’s nominee for director of national intelligence (DNI), refused to say Tuesday whether he agreed with the Intelligence Community’s (IC) assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to help the president. 

The original conclusions: Both the IC and the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 elections to favor Trump. The House Intelligence Committee’s Republican majority concluded in 2018 that Russia interfered in the elections, but did not conclude this was to favor Trump, an analysis Democratic members of the committee disagreed with. 

When asked about his thoughts on these conclusions by Senate Intelligence Committee Vice Chairman Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerFive things to know as intelligence community probes coronavirus’s origins Senate Democrats introduce proposal to pay businesses up to K per worker US intelligence says it’s investigating COVID-19’s origins MORE (D-Va.) during the nomination hearing, Ratcliffe would not commit to one side. 

Not taking sides: Ratcliffe said that while he had “no reason to dispute” the Senate panel’s findings, he also would not dispute the House Intelligence Committee’s conclusions, a panel on which Ratcliffe serves. 

“I respect both committees, but I have not seen the underlying intelligence to tell me why there is a difference of opinion between the two committees,” Ratcliffe said. 

Ratcliffe did agree that Russian interference took place in 2016, and he said that he expects Russia to remain a threat to elections.

“The most important takeaway of the findings I think of both committees is that as Russia continues to sow discord that they have not been successful at changing votes or the outcome of the election, and we need to remain committed to making sure that does not happen in the future,” Ratcliffe said. 

Read more about Ratcliffe’s comments here. 

 

QANON ACCOUNT TAKEDOWN: Facebook announced Tuesday that it has taken down several groups, pages and accounts affiliated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The social media platform made the announcement as part of its monthly report on coordinated inauthentic behavior on its platform.

The five pages, 20 Facebook accounts and six groups, all originating in the U.S., were discovered as part of the platform’s investigation into disinformation ahead of the 2020 election.

Conspiracy theory details: The QAnon conspiracy theory is based around the belief that President Trump is actively fighting against enemies in the “deep state” and Democratic establishment running a global child sex trafficking ring.

Many of the theory’s followers have in recent months latched onto a baseless theory that the novel coronavirus was developed by Bill and Melinda Gates as a cover for a depopulation campaign led by mass vaccinations.

The pages and accounts were removed for violating rules against fake personas and inauthentic behavior.

In addition to the QAnon affiliated pages and accounts, Facebook also removed several domestic pages linked to VDARE, an anti-immigration website with ties to prominent white nationalists.

Read more about Facebook’s actions here. 

 

HACKERS TARGET HEALTHCARE: The top cybersecurity agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom on Tuesday warned that hackers are targeting health care organizations and essential services during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the U.K.’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) put out a joint alert warning that advanced persistent threat (APT) groups are using the pandemic to zero in on vulnerable organizations involved in fighting the virus.

“APT actors are actively targeting organizations involved in both national and international COVID-19 responses,” the agencies wrote in the alert. “These organizations include healthcare bodies, pharmaceutical companies, academia, medical research organizations, and local governments.”

What the hackers want: The agencies warned that these groups were likely being targeted in order to steal intellectual property and intelligence, such as details on national and international health policies and COVID-19 research. 

Hackers are increasingly using “password spraying” to target the organizations, which involves an attacker using common passwords on many accounts repeatedly to gain access. 

“Organizations involved in COVID-19-related research are attractive targets for APT actors looking to obtain information for their domestic research efforts into COVID-19-related medicine,” CISA and the NCSC wrote. 

Read more about the alert here. 

 

TECH TEAM-UP: Thirty-one technology and telecommunications companies on Tuesday launched a new coalition aimed at pushing lawmakers to back software-based alternatives to physical fifth-generation wireless (5G) infrastructure.

The Open RAN Coalition is championing the technology called “open radio access” as a way to advance competition and innovation in the 5G space.

The group argues that the government should fund and incentivize open and interoperable networks that allow more vendors to provide necessary equipment.

Facebook, Microsoft, Google, AT&T and Verizon are among the founding members of the group.

The coalition will be led by Diane Rinaldo, who previously served as acting chief of the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

“As evidenced by the current global pandemic, vendor choice and flexibility in next-generation network deployments are necessary from a security and performance standpoint,” Rinaldo said in a statement Tuesday.

Read more about the coalition here. 

 

PUBLIC HEALTH EXPERTS WEIGH IN: A group of more than 800 public health experts on Tuesday called on Congress to fund mail-in voting amid rising concerns about in-person voting related to the coronavirus pandemic. 

The experts — made up of professors, psychologists and doctors led by the Center for American Progress — sent a letter to the House and Senate asking that states be given $4 billion to help move to mail-in voting. 

These funds would cover the mailing and printing of ballots, securing ballot request systems and staffing, among other issues. 

“In order to ensure the integrity of the electoral process and protect the public health at the same time, it is incumbent on our leaders to prepare for a Presidential election by mail, in which ballots are sent to all registered voters, to allow them to vote from home and ensure their health and safety in the event of a new outbreak of SARS-CoV-2,” the public health experts wrote. 

The experts used the recent Wisconsin primary elections as an example of how COVID-19 can spread if Americans are forced to vote in-person, after dozens of individuals there tested positive for the coronavirus in the weeks since the election. 

“Many of us in public health looked on with horror as thousands of people in Wisconsin were forced to choose between exercising their right to vote and staying home to protect themselves from exposure to the new coronavirus SARS-CoV-2,” the group wrote. “Those choosing the former were imperiling their own lives by voting in person that day.”

Read more about the push for mail-in voting here. 

 

MERGER FREEZE: A group of Democratic representatives sent a letter to House leadership on Tuesday pushing for a freeze on most mergers in the next coronavirus relief package.

Rep. David CicillineDavid Nicola CicillineHillicon Valley: House committee calls on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify | Trump issues executive order to protect power grid against attacks | Department of Education investigates ties between University of Texas and China House Judiciary Committee calls on Bezos to testify as part of antitrust probe Warren, Ocasio-Cortez to propose big merger freeze amid pandemic MORE (D-R.I.), chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, is leading the letter, which backers include Energy and Commerce consumer protection subcommittee chair Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), leadership member Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinThe ‘new normal’ takes shape on Capitol Hill Federal employees push for COVID-19 protections in ‘dangerous’ workplaces McCarthy doubtful Republicans will participate in coronavirus select committee MORE (D-Md.) and progressive lawmakers Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezHousing advocates sound alarm as May rents collide with coronavirus Hillicon Valley: Republican senator calls for investigation into Amazon | Warren, Ocasio-Cortez propose big merger freeze during pandemic | Delaware to allow disabled voters to vote online in primary On The Money: White House mulling additional stimulus checks | House delay raises questions about coronavirus relief | Small business program may be near exhaustion MORE (D-N.Y.), Pramila JayapalPramila JayapalHillicon Valley: House committee calls on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos to testify | Trump issues executive order to protect power grid against attacks | Department of Education investigates ties between University of Texas and China House Judiciary Committee calls on Bezos to testify as part of antitrust probe GOP lawmakers slam proposals for guaranteed income amid pandemic MORE (D-Wash.) and Mark PocanMark William PocanThe ‘new normal’ takes shape on Capitol Hill House committees move toward virtual hearings for COVID-19 era Federal employees push for COVID-19 protections in ‘dangerous’ workplaces MORE (D-Wis.).

“Powerful corporations and private equity firms are standing ready to exploit this crisis for unfair financial gain. We know that market consolidation produces higher prices and few choices for consumers, lower wages for workers, and contributes to grotesque levels of economic inequality,” Cicilline said in a statement.

“To protect American consumers and workers, the next COVID-19 relief package should include a merger moratorium for transactions that do not involve firms that are truly failing and have exhausted all other options or are in bankruptcy proceedings.”

The letter to House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe next big battle on Capitol Hill concerns aid to states and localities Pelosi slams White House for blocking coronavirus task force members from testifying: ‘They might be afraid of the truth’ Parties divided over health risks to reopening Capitol MORE (D-Calif.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyParties divided over health risks to reopening Capitol House Democrat calls for halt to lawmakers sleeping in their offices GOP leader disagrees with Pelosi, McConnell on WH testing offer MORE (R-Calif.) calls for an exception for mergers involving the purchase of a severely distressed company that would otherwise likely go bankrupt.

Cicilline first proposed a merger moratorium during the pandemic last month.

Read more about the proposal here. 

 

AIRBNB CUTS WORKFORCE: Airbnb, the short-term rental app that has gained increasing popularity in recent years, is planning to lay off about 25 percent of its workforce as it experiences a dramatic drop in revenue amid the coronavirus outbreak. 

CEO and cofounder Brian Chesky announced the move in a letter sent to employees and later shared on the company’s website. The layoffs will apply to nearly 1,900 of the company’s 7,500 workers, Chesky said. 

“We are collectively living through the most harrowing crisis of our lifetime, and as it began to unfold, global travel came to a standstill,” Chesky said. “Airbnb’s business has been hit hard, with revenue this year forecasted to be less than half of what we earned in 2019.”

Chesky noted that the company “raised $2 billion in capital and dramatically cut costs” after the outbreak began impacting its core business. But he said it wasn’t enough considering the uncertainty around travel.

“While we know Airbnb’s business will fully recover, the changes it will undergo are not temporary or short-lived,” he added. “Because of this, we need to make more fundamental changes to Airbnb by reducing the size of our workforce around a more focused business strategy.”

The company plans to pause efforts related to Transportation and Airbnb Studios and scale back investments in hotels. 

Read more about the cuts here. 

 

AMAZON WORKER DIES: An Amazon worker at a fulfillment facility in Staten Island has died of COVID-19, a spokesperson for the company confirmed Tuesday.

The online retail giant is currently in the process of notifying workers at the warehouse and has been in touch with the employee’s family.

The worker was last on site on April 5 and was diagnosed with the disease caused by the coronavirus on April 11.

“We are deeply saddened by the loss of an associate at our site in Staten Island, NY,” Amazon spokesperson Kirsten Kish said in a statement to The Hill. “His family and loved ones are in our thoughts, and we are supporting his fellow colleagues.”

The Verge first reported on the death.

This is the third known death of an Amazon worker from COVID-19. A worker at a Hawthorne, California, facility died on March 31, and another from a Tracy, California, warehouse died April 1.

Workers at the Staten Island facility, known as JFK8, were some of the first to protest Amazon’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Several of the facilities workers walked out in late March after an employee tested positive for COVID-19. 

Read more here. 

 

FRIENDLY SUGGESTION: Twitter announced Tuesday it is running a test for a tool that would allow users to revise replies before they’re published if they contain “harmful” language.

“When things get heated, you may say things you don’t mean. To let you rethink a reply, we’re running a limited experiment on iOS with a prompt that gives you the option to revise your reply before it’s published if it uses language that could be harmful,” the tech platform said in a tweet. 

Under the new tool, users will be alerted when they hit “send” on a reply if their message contains words that are similar to those in other posts that were reported. Users will then be given an option to change their response before their reply is published.

The test is just the latest development in Twitter’s efforts to respond to pressure to tackle hateful posts on its platform. Current monitoring is done by users who flag offensive posts and through screening technology. 

Read more about the new tool here. 

 

BOOK THE TABLE YOUR WAY: Burger King is testing a table booking app for some of its restaurants in Italy once they fully reopen, which is expected to happen on June 1.

The fast food chain aims to make customers more comfortable eating inside restaurants after more than two months of lockdown in the country. The app will allow customers to order food for take-out or dine-in, pay and book a table, Andrea Valota, Burger King’s chief in Italy, said, according to Reuters.

Burger King will begin testing its app at three of its Milan locations when they are permitted to fully reopen, and if the trial goes well, the app could be used in other countries, Valota said.

“We need to be good at showing people that it’s safe to come to a place which is perceived as being crowded, and give them options so they understand there is a safe way to come in,” Valota told Reuters.

A third of the tables at Burger King restaurants will be reserved during peak hours, typically from 12 to 2 p.m. and 7 to 9 p.m. Social distancing will already more than halve the capacity of the restaurants. 

Read more about the app here. 

 

Lighter click: Is this a kangaroo or a dog? 

An op-ed to chew on: Congress, state leaders must move to implement vote by mail for the remainder of 2020 election cycle

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

Companies’ next moral crisis: How to track employees without invading their privacy (Protocol / Lauren Hepler) 

Parking lots have become a digital lifeline (The New York Times / Cecilia Kang) 

Apple’s copyright lawsuit has created a ‘chilling effect’ on security research (Motherboard / Lorenzo Francheschi-Bicchierai)



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