Further Reading, Other Developments, and Coming Events (16 February 2021)

Further Reading

  • India cuts internet around New Delhi as protesting farmers clash with police” By Esha Mitra and Julia Hollingsworth — CNN; “Twitter Temporarily Blocked Accounts Critical Of The Indian Government” By Pranav Dixit — BuzzFeed News. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government again shut down the internet as a way of managing unrest or discontent with government policies. The parties out of power have registered their opposition, but the majority seems intent on using this tactic time and again. One advocacy organization named India as the nation with the most shutdowns in 2019, by far. The government in New Delhi also pressed Twitter to take down tweets and accounts critical of the proposed changes in agricultural law. Twitter complied per its own policies and Indian law and then later restored the accounts and tweets.
  • Lacking a Lifeline: How a federal effort to help low-income Americans pay their phone bills failed amid the pandemic” By Tony Romm — The Washington Post. An excellent overview of this Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program and its shortcomings. The Trump era FCC blunted and undid Obama era FCC reforms designed to make the eligibility of potential users easier to discern, among other changes. At the end of the day, many enrollees are left with a fixed number of minutes for phone calls and 4GB of data a month, or roughly what my daughter often uses in a day.
  • She exposed tech’s impact on people of color. Now, she’s on Biden’s team.” By Emily Birnbaum — Protocol. The new Deputy Director for Science and Society in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is a former academic and researcher who often focused her studies on the intersection of race and technology, usually how the latter failed minorities. This is part of the Biden Administration’s fulfillment of its campaign pledges to establish a more inclusive White House. It remains to be seen how the administration will balance the views of those critical of big technology with those hailing from big technology as a number of former high ranking employees have already joined or are rumored to be joining the Biden team.
  • Vaccine scheduling sites are terrible. Can a new plan help Chicago fix them?” By Issie Lapowsky — Protocol. As should not be shocking, many jurisdictions across the country have problematic interfaces for signing up for vaccination against COVID-19. It sounds reminiscent of the problems that plagued the Obamacare exchanges rollout in that potentially well thought out policy was marred by a barely thought out public face.
  • Google launches News Showcase in Australia in sign of compromise over media code” By Josh Taylor — The Guardian; “Cracks in media code opposition as Microsoft outflanks Google and Facebook” By Lisa Visentin — The Sydney Morning Herald. Both Google and Canberra seem to be softening their positions as the company signed up a number of major media outlets for its News Showcase, a feature that will be made available in Australia that will compensate the news organizations at an undisclosed level. However, a few major players, Nine, News Corp., and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, have not joined, with Nine saying it will not. Google’s de-escalation of rhetoric and tactics will likely allow Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government to relax the proposed legislation that would mandate Google and Facebook compensate Australian news media (i.e., the News Media and Digital Platforms Mandatory Bargaining Code.) Microsoft’s theoretical entrance into the Australian market through Bing if Google and Facebook actually leave or limit their presence seems to be arguing against the latter two companies’ position that the new code is unworkable. It is not clear if Microsoft is acting earnestly or floating a possible scenario in order that the other companies be cast in a bad light. In any event, cristics of the platforms say the fight is not about the technical feasibility of compensating news media but rather about establishing a precedent of paying for content the platforms now get essentially for free. Other content creators and entities could start demanding payment, too. An interesting tidbit from the second article: Canada may soon join Australia and the European Union in enacting legislation requiring Big Tech to pay its media companies for using their content (i.e., “a more equitable digital regulatory framework across platforms and news media” according to a minister.)

Other Developments

  • The Maryland legislature overrode Governor Larry Hogan’s (R) veto, and the first tax on digital advertising has been enacted in the United States. The “Taxation – Tobacco Tax, Sales and Use Tax, and Digital Advertising Gross Revenues Tax” (HB0732) would impose a tax on digital advertising in the state and may be outside a federal bar on certain taxes on internet services. However, if the veto is overridden, there will inevitably be challenges, and quite likely a push in Congress to enact a federal law preempting such digital taxes. Additionally, the primary sponsor of the legislation has introduced another bill barring companies from passing along the costs of the tax to Maryland businesses and consumers.
    • In a bill analysis, the legislature asserted about HB0732:
      • The bill imposes a tax on the annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the State. The bill provides for the filing of the tax returns and making tax payments. The part of the annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the State are to be determined using an apportionment fraction based on the annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the State and the annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the United States. The Comptroller must adopt regulations that determine the state from which revenues from digital advertising services are derived.
      • The digital advertising gross revenues tax is imposed at the following rates:
        • 2.5% of the assessable base for a person with global annual gross revenues of $100.0 million through $1.0 billion;
        • 5% of the assessable base for a person with global annual gross revenues of $1.0 billion through $5.0 billion;
        • 7.5% of the assessable base for a person with global annual gross revenues of $5.0 billion through $15.0 billion; and
        • 10% of the assessable base for a person with global annual gross revenues exceeding $15.0 billion.
    • In his analysis, Maryland’s Attorney General explained:
      • House Bill 732 would enact a new “digital advertising gross revenues tax.” The tax would be “imposed on annual gross revenues of a person derived from digital advertising services in the State.” Digital advertising services are defined in the bill to include “advertisement services on a digital interface, including advertisements in the form of banner advertising, search engine advertising, interstitial advertising, and other comparable advertising services.” The annual gross revenues derived from digital advertising services is set out in a formula in the bill.
      • Attorney General Brian Frosh conceded there will be legal challenges to the new Maryland tax: there are “three grounds on which there is some risk that a reviewing court would find that the taxis unconstitutional: (1) preemption under the federal Internet Tax Freedom Act; (2) the Commerce Clause; and, (3) the First Amendment.”
  • Democratic Members introduced the “Secure Data and Privacy for Contact Tracing Act” (H.R.778/S.199) in both the House and Senate, legislation that “would provide grants to states that choose to use technology as part of contact tracing efforts for COVID-19 if they agree to adopt strong privacy protections for users” per their press release. Representatives Jackie Speier (D-CA) and Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced the House bill and Senators Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) the Senate version. Speier, Dingell, Schatz, and Baldwin contended “[t]he Secure Data and Privacy for Contact Tracing Actprovides grant funding for states to responsibly develop digital contact tracing technologies consistent with the following key privacy protections:
    • Digital contact tracing tech must be strictly voluntary and provide clear information on intended use.
    • Data requested must be minimized and proportionate to what is required to achieve contact tracing objectives.
    • Data must be deleted after contact tracing processing is complete, or at the end of the declaration of emergency.
    • States must develop a plan for how their digital contact tracing technology compliments more traditional contact tracing efforts and describe efforts to ensure their technology will be interoperable with other states. 
    • States must establish procedures for independent security assessments of digital contact tracing infrastructure and remediate vulnerabilities. 
    • Information gathered must be used strictly for public health functions authorized by the state and cannot be used for punitive measures, such as criminal prosecution or immigration enforcement.
    • Digital contact tracing tech must have robust detection capabilities consistent with CDC guidance on exposure. 
    • Digital contact tracing technology must ensure anonymity, allowing only authorized public health authorities or other authorized parties to have access to personally identifiable information.
  • The chair and ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee wrote the heads of the agencies leading the response to the Russian hack of the United States (U.S.) government and private sector entities through SolarWinds, taking them to task for their thus far cloistered, siloed approach. In an unusually blunt letter, Chair Mark Warner (D-VA) and Ranking Member Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked the agencies name a leader to the response triggered when former President Donald Trump triggered the system established in Presidential Policy Directive-41 because “[t]he federal government’s response so far has lacked the leadership and coordination warranted by a significant cyber event, and we have little confidence that we are on the shortest path to recovery.” Warner and Rubio directed this request to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Security Agency and Cyber Command head General Paul Nakasone, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Christopher Wray, and Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) Acting Director Brandon Wales. Warner and Rubio further asserted:
    • The briefings we have received convey a disjointed and disorganized response to confronting the breach. Taking a federated rather than a unified approach means that critical tasks that are outside the central roles of your respective agencies are likely to fall through the cracks. The threat our country still faces from this incident needs clear leadership to develop and guide a unified strategy for recovery, in particular a leader who has the authority to coordinate the response, set priorities, and direct resources to where they are needed. The handling of this incident is too critical for us to continue operating the way we have been.
  • Huawei filed suit against the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision to “designate Huawei, as well as its parents, affiliates, and subsidiaries, as companies posing a national security threat to the integrity of our nation’s communications networks and the communications supply chain” through “In the Matter of Protecting Against National Security Threats to the Communications Supply Chain Through FCC Programs – Huawei Designation.” In the petition filed with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Huawei said it is “seek[ing] review of the Final Designation Order on the grounds that it exceeds the FCC’s statutory authority; violates federal law and the Constitution; is arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion, and not supported by substantial evidence, within the meaning of the Administrative Procedure Act, 5 U.S.C. § 701 et seq.; was adopted through a process that failed to provide Petitioners with the procedural protections afforded by the Constitution and the Administrative Procedure Act; and is otherwise contrary to law.”
  • According to unnamed sources, the Biden Administration has decided to postpone indefinitely the Trump Administration’s efforts to forcing ByteDance to sell TikTok as required by a Trump Administration executive order. Last September, it appeared that Oracle and Walmart had reached a deal in principle with ByteDance that quickly raised more questions that it settled (see here for more details and analysis.) There are reports of ByteDance working with the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (CFIUS), the inter-agency review group, that ordered ByteDance to spin off TikTok. TikTok and CFIUS are reportedly talking about what an acceptable divestment would look like, but of course, under recently implemented measures, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) would also have to sign off. Nonetheless, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki remarked at a press conference “[t]here is a rigorous CFIUS process that is ongoing.”
  • The Biden Administration has asked two federal appeals courts to pause lawsuits brought to stop the United States (U.S.) government from enforcing the Trump Administration executive order banning TikTok from the United States (see here for more analysis.)
    • In the status report filed with the United States Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia, TikTok and the Department of Justice (DOJ) explained:
      • Defendants’ counsel informed Plaintiffs’ counsel regarding the following developments: As the Biden Administration has taken office, the Department of Commerce has begun a review of certain recently issued agency actions, including the Secretary’s prohibitions regarding the TikTok mobile application at issue in this case. In relation to those prohibitions, the Department plans to conduct an evaluation of the underlying record justifying those prohibitions. The government will then be better positioned to determine whether the national security threat described in the President’s August 6, 2020 Executive Order, and the regulatory purpose of protecting the security of Americans and their data, continue to warrant the identified prohibitions. The Department of Commerce remains committed to a robust defense of national security as well as ensuring the viability of our economy and preserving individual rights and data privacy.
    • In its unopposed motion, the DOJ asked the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit “hold this case in abeyance, with status reports due at 60-day intervals.” The DOJ used exactly the same language as in the filing in the D.C. Circuit.
  • The Trump Administration’s President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) issued a report at the tail end of the  administration, “Industries of the Future Institutes: A New Model for American Science and Technology Leadership,” that “follows up on a recommendation from PCAST’s report, released June 30, 2020, involving the formation of a new type of multi-sector research and development organization: Industries of the Future Institutes (IotFIs)…[and] provides a framework to inform the design of IotFIs and thus should be used as preliminary guidance by funders and as a starting point for discussion among those considering participation.”
    • PCAST “propose[d] a revolutionary new paradigm for multi-sector collaboration—Industries of the Future Institutes (IotFIs)—to address some of the greatest societal challenges of our time and to ensure American science and technology (S&T) leadership for decades to come.” PCAST stated “[b]y driving research and development (R&D) at the intersection of two or more IotF areas, these Institutes not only will advance knowledge in the individual IotF topics, but they also will spur new research questions and domains of inquiry at their confluence.” PCAST added:
      • By engaging multiple disciplines and each sector of the U.S. R&D ecosystem—all within the same agile organizational framework—IotFIs will span the spectrum from discovery research to the development of new products and services at scale. Flexible intellectual property terms will incentivize participation of all sectors, and reduced administrative and regulatory burdens will optimize researcher time for creativity and productivity while maintaining appropriate safety, transparency, integrity, and accountability. IotFIs also will serve as a proving ground for new, creative approaches to organizational structure and function; broadening participation; workforce development; science, technology, engineering, and math education; and methods for engaging all sectors of the American research ecosystem. Ultimately, the fruits of IotFIs will sustain American global leadership in S&T, improve quality of life, and help ensure national and economic security for the future.
  • Per the European Commission’s (EC) request, the European Data Protection Board (EDPB) issued clarifications on the consistent application of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) with a focus on health research. The EDPB explained:
    • The following response of the EDPB to the questions of the European Commission should be considered as a first attempt to take away some of the misunderstandings and misinterpretations as to the application of the GDPR to the domain of scientific health research. Generally speaking, most of these questions call for more time for in-depth analysis and/or a search for examples and best practices and can as yet not be completely answered.
    • In its guidelines (currently in preparation and due in 2021) on the processing personal data for scientific research purposes, the EDPB will elaborate further on these issues while also aiming to provide a more comprehensive interpretation of the various provisions in the GDPR that are relevant for the processing of personal data for scientific research purposes.
    • This will also entail a clarification of the extent and scope of the ‘special derogatory regime’ for the processing of personal data for scientific research purposes in the GDPR. It is important that this regime is not perceived as to imply a general exemption to all requirements in the GDPR in case of processing data for scientific research purposes. It should be taken into account that this regime only aims to provide for exceptions to specific requirements in specific situations and that the use of such exceptions is made dependent on ‘additional safeguards’ (Article 89(1) GDPR) to be in place.
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has assessed how well the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has rolled out and implemented its Lifeline National Verifier (referred to as Verifier by the GAO) to aid low income people in accessing telecommunications benefits. The Verifier was established in 2016 to address claims that allowing telecommunications carriers to make eligibility determinations for participation in the program to help people obtain lower cost communications had led to waste, fraud, and abuse. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Communications and Technology Subcommittee Chair Mike Doyle (D-PA), and six Democratic colleagues on the committee asked the GAO “to review FCC’s implementation of the Verifier.” The GAO explained “[t]his report examines (1) the status of the Verifier; (2) the extent to which FCC coordinated with state and federal stakeholders, educated consumers, and facilitated involvement of tribal stakeholders; and (3) the extent to which the Verifier is meeting its goals.” The GAO concluded:
    • The Lifeline program is an important tool that helps low-income Americans afford vital voice and broadband services. In creating the Lifeline National Verifier, FCC sought to facilitate eligible Americans’ access to Lifeline support while protecting the program from waste, fraud, and abuse. Although USAC, under FCC’s oversight, has made progress to implement the Verifier, many eligible consumers are unaware of it and may be unable to use it. Additionally, tribal governments and organizations do not have the information they need from FCC to effectively assist residents of tribal lands in using the Verifier to enroll in Lifeline, even though Lifeline support is critical to increasing access to affordable telecommunications services on tribal lands. Without FCC developing a plan to educate consumers about the Verifier and empowering tribal governments to assist residents of tribal lands with the Verifier, eligible consumers, especially those on tribal lands, will continue to lack awareness of the Verifier and the ability to use it.
    • Further, without measures and information to assess progress toward some of its goals, FCC lacks information it needs to refine and improve the Verifier. While it is too soon to determine if the Verifier is protecting against fraud, FCC has measures in place to monitor fraud moving forward. However, FCC lacks measures to track the Verifier’s progress toward the intent of its second goal of delivering value to Lifeline consumers. FCC also lacks information to help it assess and improve its efforts to meet the third goal of improving the consumer experience. Additionally, consumers may experience challenges with the Verifier’s online application, such as difficulty identifying the Verifier as a government service, and may be uncomfortable providing sensitive information to a website that does not use a “.gov” domain. Unless FCC identifies and addresses challenges with the Verifier’s manual review process and its online application, it will be limited in its ability to improve the consumer experience. As a result, some eligible consumers may abandon their applications and go without the support they need to access crucial telecommunications services. Given that a majority of Lifeline subscribers live in states without state database connections and therefore must undergo manual review more frequently, ensuring that challenges with the manual review process are resolved is particularly important.
    • The GAO recommended:
      • The Chairman of FCC should develop and implement a plan to educate eligible consumers about the Lifeline program and Verifier requirements that aligns with key practices for consumer education planning. (Recommendation 1)
      • The Chairman of FCC should provide tribal organizations with targeted information and tools, such as access to the Verifier, that equip them to assist residents of tribal lands with their Verifier applications. (Recommendation 2)
      • The Chairman of FCC should identify and use performance measures to track the Verifier’s progress in delivering value to consumers. (Recommendation 3)
      • The Chairman of FCC should ensure that it has quality information on consumers’ experience with the Verifier’s manual review process, and should use that information to improve the consumer experience to meet the Verifier’s goals. (Recommendation 4)
      • The Chairman of FCC should ensure that the Verifier’s online application and support website align with characteristics for leading federal website design, including that they are accurate, clear, understandable, easy to use, and contain a mechanism for users to provide feedback. (Recommendation 5)
      • The Chairman of FCC should convert the Verifier’s online application, checklifeline.org, to a “.gov” domain. (Recommendation 6)

Coming Events

  • The House Appropriations Committee’s Financial Services and General Government Subcommittee will hold an oversight hearing on the Election Assistance Commission (EAC) on 16 February with EAC Chair Benjamin Hovland.
  • On 17 February, the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s Communications and Technology Subcommittee will hold a hearing titled “Connecting America: Broadband Solutions to Pandemic Problems” with these witnesses:
    • Free Press Action Vice President of Policy and General Counsel Matthew F. Wood
    • Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Tiffany Anderson
    • Communications Workers of America President Christopher M. Shelton
    • Wireless Infrastructure Association President and CEO Jonathan Adelstein
  • On 17 February, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold an open meeting, its first under acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, with this tentative agenda:
    • Presentation on the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. The Commission will hear a presentation on the creation of an Emergency Broadband Benefit Program. Congress charged the FCC with developing a new $3.2 billion program to help Americans who are struggling to pay for internet service during the pandemic.
    • Presentation on COVID-19 Telehealth Program. The Commission will hear a presentation about the next steps for the agency’s COVID-19 Telehealth program. Congress recently provided an additional $249.95 million to support the FCC’s efforts to expand connected care throughout the country and help more patients receive health care safely.
    • Presentation on Improving Broadband Mapping Data. The Commission will hear a presentation on the work the agency is doing to improve its broadband maps. Congress directly appropriated $65 million to help the agency develop better data for improved maps.
    • Addressing 911 Fee Diversion. The Commission will consider a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that would implement section 902 of the Don’t Break Up the T-Band Act of 2020, which requires the Commission to take action to help address the diversion of 911 fees by states and other jurisdictions for purposes unrelated to 911. (PS Docket Nos. 20-291, 09-14)
    • Implementing the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act. The Commission will consider a Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that proposes to modify FCC rules consistent with changes that were made to the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. (WC Docket No. 18-89)
  • On 18 February, the House Financial Services will hold a hearing titled “Game Stopped? Who Wins and Loses When Short Sellers, Social Media, and Retail Investors Collide” with Reddit Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer Steve Huffman testifying along with other witnesses.
  • On 27 July, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) will hold PrivacyCon 2021.

© Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog and michaelkans.blog, 2019-2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Michael Kans, Michael Kans Blog, and michaelkans.blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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