Hillicon Valley: FCC approves Nexstar-Tribune merger | Top Democrat seeks answers on security of biometric data | 2020 Democrats take on Chinese IP theft | How Google, Facebook probes are testing century-old antitrust laws

Hillicon Valley: FCC approves Nexstar-Tribune merger | Top Democrat seeks answers on security of biometric data | 2020 Democrats take on Chinese IP theft | How Google, Facebook probes are testing century-old antitrust laws
© Greg Nash

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

 

STAMP OF APPROVAL: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Monday announced it has approved the merger of the Nexstar Media Group and Tribune Media Company, green-lighting a deal that would create the country's largest local TV broadcast station ownership group.

The commission voted for the order approving the merger 3-2 along party lines, finding the merger would offer "several public interest benefits to viewers of current Tribune and Nexstar stations."

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The Department of Justice (DOJ) signed off on the deal over the summer after requiring the broadcasters to divest TV stations in 13 markets over antitrust concerns.

Nexstar Media is the second-largest owner of local television stations in the U.S.

Critics of the deal have argued it could harm the local news ecosystem, raising concerns that it could jeopardize "competition, diversity, and local control in local television broadcasting."

"High-quality local news is incredibly important to our society and democracy," Charlotte Slaiman, senior policy counsel at advocacy group Public Knowledge said in a statement. "The changing marketplace for news and information has made it more and more difficult for independent local news organizations to survive."

"Today, the important priority of localism in news was ignored, to the detriment of all of us, not only in our role as consumers but also as participants in our democracy," she added.

Read more here.

 

ALGORITHM TROUBLE: Amazon altered its search algorithm in a way that would boost profits for the online retail giant despite pushback against the decision from within the company, The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday.

The change reportedly came last year with a tweak that prioritizes products that are more profitable for Amazon, including its own brands, in a departure from its long-standing practice of displaying products in order of relevance to a user's search terms.

According to the Journal, Amazon's retail business was behind the push for the product search system to take profitability into account. Programmers tasked with running the search algorithm, a group called A9, reportedly opposed the idea as running counter to the company's ethos of putting the customer above all else.

Amazon's legal team also raised concerns about the idea, according to the Journal, pointing out that the decision could draw scrutiny from the European Union, which had fined Google $2.7 billion in 2017 for elevating its own comparison-shopping service in its search results.

"The Wall Street Journal has it wrong," Amazon spokeswoman Angie Newman said in a statement.

"We explained at length that their 'scoop' from unnamed sources was not factually accurate, but they went ahead with the story anyway. The fact is that we have not changed the criteria we use to rank search results to include profitability.

"We feature the products customers will want, regardless of whether they are our own brands or products offered by our selling partners. As any store would do, we consider the profitability of the products we list and feature on the site, but it is just one metric and not in any way a key driver of what we show customers."

Read more here. 

 

IP THEFT TROUBLE: Democratic presidential candidates raised concerns about China's theft of U.S. intellectual property at Thursday's debate, shining attention on an ongoing source of tension between the two countries. 

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio New study: Full-scale 'Medicare for All' costs trillion over 10 years MORE, Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Warren leads in speaking time during debate MORE (D-Calif.) and former tech entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Warren leads in speaking time during debate Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE all highlighted their worries about whether China is stealing U.S. intellectual property as they discussed the ongoing trade war between the two countries while promising to tackle the issue if elected president.

"The problem isn't the trade deficit. The problem is they are stealing our intellectual property," Biden said about China.

Suspicions that hackers from the country are stealing innovation, trade and military secrets have contributed to tensions between the two countries.

According to the findings of a 2018 investigation by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, Chinese intellectual property theft costs the U.S. between $225 billion and $600 billion annually.

Multiple intelligence agencies have identified Chinese theft of intellectual property as a national security threat.

A 2018 report on foreign economic espionage from the National Counterintelligence and Security Center warned that China "could erode U.S. America's long-term economic advantage" if its cyber-enabled theft of intellectual property continues. 

And the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment published by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January expanded on the threat, with former Director of National Intelligence Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray Coats281 lobbyists have worked in Trump administration: report Former intelligence chief Coats rejoins law firm Remembering leaders who put country above party MORE emphasizing in the report that "China presents a persistent cyber espionage threat and a growing attack threat to our core military and critical infrastructure systems." 

And a report from CNBC's Global CFO Council, which represents around $5 trillion in market value across various sectors, found in March that 1 in 5 North American-based companies had been a victim of Chinese intellectual property theft in the past decade. 

The reported intellectual theft was cited by President TrumpDonald John TrumpWarren defends, Buttigieg attacks in debate that shrank the field Five takeaways from the Democratic debate in Ohio Democrats debate in Ohio: Who came out on top? MORE as a reason to continue the ongoing trade war between the two countries, and the need to reduce Chinese theft of intellectual property is one of the few bipartisan areas of agreement on Capitol Hill. 

Read more here. 

 

HIRING TROUBLE: Over 1,000 students across 17 U.S. colleges are pledging to not work for software company Palantir over its work with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), escalating the widespread protests against the company founded by Trump adviser Peter Thiel.

The student-led campaign went public on Monday with a letter signed by over 1,200 students calling out specific colleges over their ties to Palantir. The students hail from colleges including Yale, Stanford, Harvard and the University of California-Berkley.

"We the undersigned are pledging not to work at Palantir while it continues to do business with ICE," the petition reads. "We will not apply for jobs at Palantir, we will not interview for jobs at Palantir, and we will not accept jobs at Palantir while the company is engaged in the business of deportation."

"We call on the company to cancel its contracts with ICE and we call on all students to join us in withholding our talent from Palantir," it continues.

The protests against Palantir over its work with ICE, and the broader Department of Homeland Security (DHS), have been intensifying for about a year as tech workers from within and outside the company have accused Palantir of bolstering the Trump administration's punitive immigration policies.

Palantir's contract with ICE, which is set to expire in September, initially cost the government $41 million annually but has risen in the last year to an estimated $51 million, according to government records.

Read more on the Palantir fight here.

 

WHEN OLD MEETS NEW: Nearly every state attorney general announced last week that they will investigate Google and Facebook for potential antitrust violations, alleging the Silicon Valley giants have amassed too much power and taken advantage of consumers and competitors along the way.

But the probes are on a collision course with antitrust statutes written about a century before the internet existed, raising questions about whether some antitrust laws are malleable enough to take on the powerful digital marketplace.

The slew of recently announced investigations into Big Tech at the state and federal levels have put a renewed focus on the country's antitrust statutes and how they've been interpreted in the courts.

"At a high level, I think the law is flexible enough to allow for a successful case to be brought against Google and Facebook," John Newman, a former Justice Department antitrust attorney who's now an assistant professor of law at the University of Memphis, told The Hill. "That said, there are going to be some hurdles that the law has erected."

At a widely publicized press conference on Monday, 50 attorneys general stood in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., to announce their investigation into Google's advertising business for potentially anti-competitive conduct. 

The attorneys general, hailing from a broad range of ideological backgrounds, have offered scathing criticisms of Google's market power.

"My fellow attorneys general and I launched this investigation because Google's enormous economic power, fueled by advertising, gives it unprecedented influence over Americans' lives," Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) wrote in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece on Friday. "Information is power, and Americans are beginning to realize how much power Google has over them."

California and Alabama are the only states that did not join the lawsuit.

Read more on the antitrust laws here. 

 

FOCUS ON BIOMETRIC DATA BREACHES: Sen. Mark WarnerMark Robert WarnerYang compares U.S. election tampering to Russia's election interference efforts Mark Warner nominates Bryan Cranston to play him in a movie Zuckerberg defends meetings with conservative politicians, pundits MORE (D-Va.) on Monday demanded more information about two recent data breaches of sensitive biometric information, including one that affected U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

In a letter to acting CBP Commissioner Mark Morgan, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee detailed his concerns about a cyberattack on a CBP contractor in June that involved the theft of more than 100,000 images of travelers and the exposure of sensitive data.

"It is absolutely critical that federal agencies and industry improve their track records, especially when handling and processing biometric data," Warner wrote. "Americans deserve to have their sensitive data secured, regardless of whether it is being handled by a first or a third-party."

Warner asked for Morgan to answer questions like whether CBP requires contractors and subcontractors to encrypt their databases and how the agency evaluates the information security systems and data retention policies of its contractors.

At the time of the June breach, CBP stressed that the subcontractor involved had transferred the images to its servers without authorization, and that no identifying information was included with the photos.

In a separate letter Monday, Warner requested answers from Suprema HQ about an August cyberattack that resulted in the data breach of a system housing more than 1 million fingerprint records, facial recognition images and employee security clearances.

Read more here.

 

AN ELECTION SECURITY BOOST: Colorado on Monday became the first state in the U.S. to ban the use of QR codes on ballots, citing cybersecurity concerns associated with the use of these codes in tabulating votes.

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold (D) noted in announcing the change that cybersecurity experts have raised concerns around the security of using the QR codes on ballots. 

Griswold also cited findings by U.S. intelligence that Russian operatives attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential election as a reason to enhance cybersecurity of elections. 

Currently, residents in Colorado make their choices on a ballot-marking device, which then prints a physical ballot that includes both a QR code embedded with the voter's choices and a read-out for the voter to verify their choices. 

The votes are then tabulated by a machine that scans the QR codes, which officials say have the potential to be changed by hackers and be different than the votes cast.

Colorado will now require that votes only be counted based on human-verifiable information, specifically the marked ovals on the printed ballot, and not based on the counting of votes embedded in QR codes.

Read more here.

 

LIGHTER CLICK: How does this even happen?

 

AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: America's cyber blind spot

 

NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB: 

Russia carried out a cyberattack on the FBI's communications system (Yahoo News)

You can buy vapes illegally on eBay -- and these senators want the practice to end. (The Verge) 

Senators want FCC to review Chinese telecom approvals to operate in U.S. (Reuters)

TikTok's Beijing roots fuel censorship suspicion as it builds a huge U.S. audience. (The Washington Post)