Hillicon Valley: Biden calls for revoking tech legal shield | DHS chief ‘fully expects’ Russia to try to interfere in 2020 | Smaller companies testify against Big Tech ‘monopoly power’
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Hillicon Valley will not publish on Monday, Jan. 20. We will return with more tech and cyber policy news on Tuesday, Jan. 21.
BIDEN TAKES AIM AT SECTION 230: Former Vice President Joe Biden called for revoking a key legal protection for online companies in an interview with The New York Times released Friday.
The presidential hopeful railed against Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives platforms legal immunity for content posted by third-party users while also giving them legal cover to take good-faith efforts to moderate their platforms, when asked about his concerns with Facebook.
“[The Times] can’t write something you know to be false and be exempt from being sued. But he can,” Biden told the Times editorial board, referring to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.
“The idea that it’s a tech company is that Section 230 should be revoked, immediately should be revoked, number one. For Zuckerberg and other platforms.”
Biden’s firm stance against the legal protection breaks with the other Democratic 2020 contenders, some of whom have been critical of the law but none of whom have called for it to be “revoked.”
“It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company,” Biden said of Facebook when pressed about the importance of the law. “It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy.”
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING: Acting Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Chad Wolf said Friday that his agency “fully expects” Russia to attempt to interfere in U.S. elections in 2020.
“As we saw in 2016, we fully expect Russia to attempt to interfere in the 2020 elections to sow public discord and undermine our democratic institutions,” Wolf said during an event hosted by the Homeland Security Experts Group in Washington, D.C.
Wolf also highlighted cyber threats from China and Iran.
Wolf, who has served as acting secretary since November, stressed that DHS and other federal agencies have taken measures to prepare for potential Russian interference efforts since 2016, and pointed to the 2018 midterm elections as being “the most secure elections in the modern era.”
“Let me be clear: We are prepared,” Wolf said. “More importantly, the state and local officials who run our elections are prepared. We are working with our federal partners to make sure those officials on the frontlines of our elections have the information and the tools they need to combat Russian interference.”
MEANWHILE IN COLORADO: A handful of small companies on Friday violated long-standing tech industry norms by testifying publicly against the world’s largest tech firms, alleging for the congressional record that Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have hamstrung and harmed their businesses for years.
Executives with companies that rely on Big Tech — like Sonos, a smart speaker company, and Popsockets, which used to rely on Amazon to sell their mobile device accessories — alleged the digital marketplace is inherently unequal as long as the largest companies are allowed to ruthlessly pursue profit at the expense of smaller businesses.
Many small- to medium-sized businesses around the world rely on Amazon, Google and Apple to sell and promote their products. But now, amid growing government scrutiny of Big Tech’s unprecedented size and power, those companies are going public with their stories of mistreatment and exploitation by their larger-than-life business partners.
“It is apparent that the dominant platforms are increasingly using their gatekeeper power in abusive and coercive ways,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), the chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee, which held the hearing on Big Tech in Colorado on Friday.
“It is far too common to hear horror stories from startups and other small businesses about how a dominant platform’s abrupt changes have destroyed their business,” he added.
The hearing featured four tech executives who said their companies have suffered due to an unequal partnership with one of the four Big Tech firms.
Time out: By the end of the hearing, each of the executives argued the government should step in to take on Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook.
“It would be great if the government at some level stepped in and said, ‘Massive companies that are systematically violating intellectual property rights of small players are targets for the government,'” said David Barnett, the founder and CEO of Popsockets.
David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Basecamp, said the internet has been “colonized by a handful of big tech companies.” He said it’s time for Congress to intervene.
DO BETTER: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) demanded that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enforce his platform’s community standards in order to protect elected officials ahead of the 2020 elections, following the surfacing of hate speech against her and other Michigan officials.
In a letter to Zuckerberg sent earlier this week, Whitmer cited serious concerns around the recent discovery of “hundreds of vitriolic, sexist, and violent posts on Facebook” promoting violence against her and other Michigan lawmakers and emphasized the need for Zuckerberg to “make good” on past promises to make Facebook a safer place.
“The upcoming 2020 election will undoubtedly have its own historic impact on our nation, and you are today’s corporate titan whose time is now to ‘do the right thing’ and ensure violent and hateful speech on your platform does not undermine the security of our elections — and the safety of individuals — this year,” Whitmer wrote.
The letter was sent after the Detroit Metro Times reported last week that an anti-Whitmer Facebook group was promoting violence against Whitmer, Reps. Elissa Slotkin (D-Mich.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), and against American Muslims, women, and LGTBQ+ communities.
MORE DATA PRIVACY PROBLEMS: A group of lawmakers on Friday called on the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate one of the top financial data aggregators in the U.S., questioning whether it is collecting reams of sensitive information on Americans without adequate consent.
Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), alongside Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), said the FTC should probe Envestnet, a huge financial services company that owns the largest consumer financial data aggregator in the U.S. The probe comes as Congress has intensified its scrutiny of large corporations collecting personal information on nearly every American.
“The consumer data that Envestnet collects and sells is highly sensitive,” Wyden, Brown and Eshoo wrote in a letter to the FTC. “Consumers’ credit and debit card transactions can reveal information about their health, sexuality, religion, political views, and many other personal details.”
“And the more often that consumers’ personal information is bought and sold, the greater the risk that it could be the subject of a data breach,” they added.
Envestnet owns Yodlee, a financial data aggregator used by 15 of the 20 largest banks in the country to offer personal finance tools for customers. And the lawmakers are raising concerns that customers aren’t given proper notice that Envestnet will collect and sell access to their information.
STATE CYBERSECURITY BILL: A bipartisan group of senators on Friday introduced legislation that would establish a federally funded program to put in place state cybersecurity officials nationwide, increasing the ability of states to respond to cyberattacks.
The Cybersecurity State Coordinator Act would create a federal program named after the bill that would ensure every state has a cybersecurity coordinator, with this person responsible for working with all levels of government to prepare for, prevent and respond to cyberattacks.
The program would be housed within the Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, an agency that works closely with state and local governments on issues including defending against cyber threats to elections.
The bill would also increase coordination on cyber issues between the federal government and state and local governments, boost efforts to prepare for and respond to cyberattacks, and increase sharing of cyber threat information.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) is the lead sponsor of the bill, with Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) as co-sponsors.
In introducing the legislation, Hassan highlighted the ongoing nationwide ransomware attacks on cities and government entities. These types of attacks, which recently crippled the government of New Orleans, involve an individual or group locking up a system and demanding a ransom to give the user access again.
A LIGHTER CLICK: Asking the important questions
AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: Trump’s actions deterred Iran–now we must do so in cyberspace
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
This is the guy who’s taking away the likes (The New York Times / Amy Chozick)
Two iPhones or the privacy of billions: Why Apple vs. the FBI matters (NBC News / David Ingram)
Facebook backs off controversial plan to sell ads in WhatsApp (The Wall Street Journal / Jeff Horwitz, Kirsten Grind)
Hackers are coming for the 2020 election – and we’re not ready (Rolling Stone / Andy Kroll)
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