Overnight Technology

Hillicon Valley: Google to promote original reporting | Senators demand answers from Amazon on worker treatment | Lawmakers weigh response to ransomware attacks

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Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Harper Neidig (@hneidig) and Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e).

GAME CHANGE: Google will start promoting news articles that feature original reporting in its search results in an effort to push users to more "authoritative" outlets, the company announced Thursday.

The shift could spell trouble for the media ecosystem that has grown around the practice of aggregating exclusive and original news stories.

"While we typically show the latest and most comprehensive version of a story in news results, we've made changes to our products globally to highlight articles that we identify as significant original reporting," Richard Gingras, Google's vice president of news, said in a blog post.

"Such articles may stay in a highly visible position longer. This prominence allows users to view the original reporting while also looking at more recent articles alongside it."

On top of the change for individual articles, Google's search raters will also begin identifying outlets that have a track record of original reporting in order to boost their content in search results.

The change comes as Google is being subject to heightened antitrust scrutiny, in part because of its dominance in the online advertising market to the detriment of industries like the news media.

It's being investigated by 50 attorneys general across the U.S. for potential antitrust violations, and over the summer news industry advocates testified before Congress about the state of the media as Google and Facebook dominate growth in online ad revenue.

Read more here. 

GOOGLE SETTLEMENT: Google on Thursday announced it had settled with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) over allegations that it suppressed its employees from speaking out in the workplace.

Under the settlement, Google will remind all of its workers that they have the right to unionize, act in concert with other employees to push for benefits, bargain with their employer and more.

The company will offer the reminder to its workers through physical notices and its internal message boards.

"We have agreed to a proposed settlement with the NLRB of Mr Cernekee's complaint," a Google spokesperson said in a statement. "Under that settlement, we have agreed to post a notice to our employees reminding them of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act."

The settlement resolves a complaint from ex-Google engineer Kevin Cernekee, who claimed Google violated his right to band together with other employees to protest workplace conditions, as well as an NLRB complaint from an anonymous Google worker who said he faced retaliation for speaking negatively about a higher-up online.

It also emerges amid a whirlwind of allegations from current and former Google employees who claim the company has been curtailing workers' rights to free speech following a wave of employee activism over Google's working conditions and its ethics decisions.

Google workers have come out publicly and anonymously to allege the tech giant retaliated against them after they engaged in workplace activism, such as arranging mass walkouts and circulating petitions. 

A Google spokeswoman told The Hill the settlement on Thursday resolves all of Cernekee's complaints to the NLRB. Publicly, Cernekee has claimed he faced discrimination within Google over his conservative views.

Read more here. 

DANGEROUS DELIVERIES: Three Senate Democrats are asking Amazon to respond to reports that it is skirting regulations and creating a dangerous environment for employees and the public with its delivery system. 

Sens. Richard Blumethal (D-Conn.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) penned a letter dated Thursday asking Amazon to answer a series of questions about its delivery practices. 

The senators asked Amazon to spell out how the company chooses its third-party delivery companies and how many companies Amazon contracts with. The letter also asks Amazon to describe steps it takes to ensure drivers and warehouse employees are treated fairly, as well as the qualifications Amazon requires of its drivers.

The senators asked for a response no later than Sept. 27. 

"It is simply unacceptable for Amazon to turn the other way as drivers are forced into potentially unsafe vehicles and given dangerous workloads," the senators wrote. 

The Democrats claim Amazon's "aggressive managerial style" contributes to the "strenuous conditions drivers face and has led to a chain of worker abuse." 

The letter cites an Aug. 31 BuzzFeed News report that described Amazon's delivery system. The report claimed Amazon skirted regulations by using a network of third-party contractors. 

A subsequent joint report from ProPublica and The New York Times that the senators note found more than 60 accidents since June 2015 involving Amazon delivery contractors, including innocent bystanders who were killed or seriously injured as Amazon delivery workers sought to meet deadlines. 

Amazon defended its "strong safety and labor compliance" in a statement to The Hill. 

Read more here. 

CONGRESS VS. RANSOMWARE: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are mulling how to address the spate of ransomware attacks that have brought some state and local governments to their knees over the past few months.

The ransomware attacks, which involve an individual or group encrypting a computer system and demanding money to allow the user to regain access, have crippled districts, libraries and municipal governments.

The problem: In the past week, attacks on the school district in Flagstaff, Ariz., forced the cancellation of classes for two days. And in Florida's Wakulla County, an attack left school employees unable to securely send emails.

There have also been ransomware attacks on school districts in Oklahoma, Virginia and New York. In Louisiana, Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) declared a state of emergency after multiple school districts were hit with by ransomware attacks in July. 

Despite the widespread attacks and pending legislation, lawmakers have yet to coalesce around a unified strategy for countering the threats.

"It's a top priority of the committee, and we'll continue oversight, we'll continue looking at the issue. I can't tell you anything specific we are going to do, though," said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), the top Democrat on the committee, told The Hill on Wednesday that ransomware poses an "epidemic problem."

"Chairman Johnson and I have been talking about cybersecurity issues pretty regularly, it's something that may indeed come up in the future," Peters said, referring to action on ransomware.

Potential legislative action: Peters previously introduced legislation that would bolster coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and state and local governments on cybersecurity threats like ransomware.

That bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), was approved by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in June but has yet to receive a floor vote.

Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.), the ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee's cybersecurity subcommittee, introduced similar legislation last month.

His measure would require the Department of Homeland Security to create a guide for assisting state and local governments in preparing for, defending against and recovering from a cyberattack. Katko cited recent ransomware attacks on the City of Syracuse School District and the Onondaga County Public Library System as examples of why Congress needs to take action.

The lack of urgency on Capitol Hill stems in part from competing legislative priorities. Democrats have made election security legislation one of their key priorities for the fall, and both parties are now turning much of their attention to passing spending bills to avoid a government shutdown on Oct. 1.

Advocates are hopeful that lawmakers, in weighing their legislative responses to ransomware, will draw upon some of the suggestions put forth by officials on the front lines.

Read more here. 

THIS COULD BE A PROBLEM: Airbnb and other short-term rental companies are worried that new legislation in Congress would require them to police their own rental platform and crack down on users.

The fight between the hotel lobby and rental platforms like Airbnb is entering a new phase as lawmakers on Capitol Hill weigh legislation that threatens companies that advertise short-term rentals.

The powerful American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) and tech companies have been facing off in cities and states across the country in recent years, but that battle is now heating up in Washington as lawmakers and regulators weigh a host of measures to address home-sharing services.

In the House, a recently introduced bill would strip online rental websites like Airbnb, HomeAway and Flipkey of federal protections that for years have given internet platforms legal immunity over content posted by third parties.

The Protecting Local Authority and Neighborhoods Act, introduced by Rep. Ed Case (D-Hawaii) on Friday, would make internet platforms liable when they host advertising for short-term rentals that violate state and city laws.

The measure is a top priority for the AHLA, which has spent more than $1.6 million on lobbying this year and has four firms on retainer, including Fierce Government Relations and Peck Madigan Jones.

Read more here. 

NEVER MIND: Facebook has removed a fact check from a video posted by an anti-abortion group after Republican senators accused the platform of censorship.

The moves comes after the group, Live Action, as well as Republican lawmakers, complained after Facebook's third-party fact-checkers deemed that a video in which the group's president, Lila Rose, claims that "abortion is never medically necessary" was inaccurate.

They argued that the fact check was not impartial because two of the physicians involved in reviewing the claim had ties to abortion rights groups.

The fact check was published by the group Health Feedback, part of the International Fact-Checking Network (IFCN), which is partnered with Facebook to crack down on misinformation on the platform. Health Feedback's reviews rated Rose's claim as inaccurate, saying, "Certain medical conditions such as placenta previa and HELLP syndrome can make abortion a necessary medical procedure in order to prevent the mother's death."

Live Action said that after the fact check was posted late last month, the group was notified by Facebook that its page's content would be subject to "reduced distribution and other restrictions because of repeated sharing of false news."

After a group of Republican senators, including Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), wrote to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Wednesday with accusations of politically motivated censorship, the social media company removed the fact check from Live Action's posts. 

Read more here. 

YIKES: A chatbot function on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Facebook page has been temporarily suspended after it sent out a message to visitors that violated the company's policies on hate speech, The Guardian reports.

According to the British newspaper, upon arrival to Netanyahu's official Facebook page, visitors were recently greeted with a message sent out by an automated chat that said the prime minister would bring "a rightwing policy of a Jewish state, security, and a strong Israel."

The message then went on to warn visitors of "a secular leftwing weak government that relies on Arabs who want to destroy us all - women, children and men."

The chatbot is reportedly run by the Likud Party, the right-wing political party to which Netanyahu belongs.

The action from Facebook comes as the prime minister continues to campaign ahead of the country's snap legislative elections next Tuesday.

The company said in a statement seen by The Guardian that it "found a violation of our hate speech policy" after "careful review of the Likud campaign's bot activities." 

Read more here. 

Lighter click: Try not to cry

An op-ed to chew on: What it takes to connect rural America 


North Korean hackers target U.S. entities amid stalled denuclearization talks (CyberScoop)

New California bill could reshape work in fields beyond technology (Wall Street Journal) 

How counties are preparing to fight cyberattacks on 2020 elections (Washington Post)