Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies

Hillicon Valley: Senate panel advances bill targeting online child sexual abuse | Trump administration awards tech group contract to build 'virtual' wall | Advocacy groups urge Congress to ban facial recognition technologies
© Bonnie Cash

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.

EARN IT ACT ADVANCES: The Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday unanimously advanced a bill tying legal protections for online platforms to efforts to combat child sexual abuse material.


The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act would amend Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act to allow federal and state claims against online companies that host child exploitation content.

Section 230, which has come under increased scrutiny since President TrumpDonald John TrumpDeWine tests negative for coronavirus a second time Several GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Beirut aftermath poses test for US aid to frustrating ally MORE targeted it in an executive order in May, gives internet companies immunity from lawsuits for content posted on their sites by third parties and allows them to make "good faith" efforts to moderate content.

The legislation advanced on Thursday would create a government-backed commission to develop “best practices” for purging child sexual abuse material from the internet.

An earlier version of the bill had conditioned Section 230 liability protections on compliance with those best practices, but a manager’s amendment from Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSeveral GOP lawmakers express concern over Trump executive orders Graham says he appreciates Trump orders, but 'would much prefer a congressional agreement' Sunday shows preview: White House, congressional Democrats unable to breach stalemate over coronavirus relief MORE (R-S.C.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) removed that tie after intense criticism. The amendment was unanimously approved on Thursday.

Graham and Blumenthal’s amendment also removed a portion of the bill that would have opened up companies to lawsuits if they “recklessly” provided a service that was then used in the distribution of child exploitation.

Despite the unanimous approval of the amended measure, it still faces harsh opposition in the Senate and among some advocacy groups.

Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenTrump signs executive orders after coronavirus relief talks falter Senate Democrats demand answers on migrant child trafficking during pandemic Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns MORE (D-Ore.) slammed the new version of the bill Wednesday, saying it would do little to stop child sex abuse material online and also endanger encryption.


“Unfortunately, the new bill will do even less than the previous version to stop the spread of child sexual abuse material, target the monsters who produce and share it or help victims of these evil crimes,” he said. “By allowing any individual state to set laws for internet content, this bill will create massive uncertainty, both for strong encryption and free speech online."

Threats to encryption, which makes it impossible for companies or governments to access private communications between devices, have been a major sticking point for industry and privacy groups opposed to the legislation. Critics say the bill could force tech companies into creating backdoors for the government, which they say would be accessed by bad actors, in order to maintain Section 230 protections.

Read more about the legislation here. 


BUILD THE (VIRTUAL) WALL: The Trump administration has reportedly awarded a contract to a California-based tech startup to set up hundreds of "autonomous surveillance towers" along the U.S.-Mexico border to aid its immigration enforcement efforts. 

U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) announced on Thursday that the towers, which use artificial intelligence and imagery to identify people and vehicles, were now a "program of record" for the agency and that 200 would be deployed along the southern border by 2022.

CBP did not mention the contract in its announcement, though the Washington Post reported that the effort includes a five-year agreement with Anduril Industries, a tech startup backed by investors such as Peter Thiel. Anduril executives told the Post that the deal is worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The company, which specializes in AI and other technologies, is valued at $1.9 billion, according to Bloomberg News

"Anduril is proud to support U.S. Customs and Border Protection as it expands its use of innovative technology solutions to greatly improve situational awareness and agent safety along the U.S. border," Anduril CEO Brian Schimpf said in a statement to The Hill.

The company did comment on the terms of its contract with CBP. 

The deal comes as the Trump administration continues its push to toughen immigration enforcement in the U.S., though efforts to use enhancements in technology to assist border enforcement has gained support across party lines. 

In 2019, as Trump aggressively pushed for the building of a wall along the border, many Democratic lawmakers called for the building of "virtual" or "smart" walls that utilized new technologies to strengthen security. 

Read more about the technology here. 


FACIAL RECOGNITION BAN: Nearly 40 civil rights, privacy and technology groups sent a letter to congressional leadership Thursday pushing for a federal moratorium on facial recognition technology.

The organizations — including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Algorithmic Justice League and the Georgetown Law Center on Privacy and Technology — called on Washington to pass legislation on the issue, suggesting the Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act introduced last week.

The bill would prohibit the use of facial recognition by all federal groups, a ban that could only be lifted by an act of Congress. It would also withhold federal funding from law enforcement if they fail to ban the tech themselves.

Facial recognition has come under renewed scrutiny in recent weeks as nationwide protests against police brutality launched by the death George Floyd continue.

Tech giants like Amazon, IBM and Microsoft have scaled back their sales of the software to law enforcement in response, but those self-imposed moratoria alone will not stop police from using facial recognition technology, opponents argue.

The letter sent to congressional leadership on Thursday points to the wrongful arrest of Robert Williams, a Black man from Detroit, as a clear case of the risks of the technology.

Williams was held for more than a day in January after his driver's license photo was matched to surveillance video of a shoplifter.

“As the Williams story shows, the harms of face recognition are real for communities across the country," Neema Singh Guliani, senior legislative counsel at the ACLU, told The Hill. "While many details about law enforcement use of this technology wrongly remain secret, the information we do have is cause for alarm. This surveillance technology is disproportionately inaccurate, is targeted at already overpoliced communities, and is a threat to our privacy and civil liberties."


Read more about the groups’ concerns here. 


TWITTER VS. TRUMP PART INFINITY: Twitter on Wednesday removed an image from a tweet by President Trump after The New York Times filed a copyright claim, marking the second time the tech company has taken such a step regarding content shared by the president. 

The president earlier this week tweeted a meme featuring a black-and-white image of himself pointing at the camera with text that read: “In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you. I’m just in the way.” The original image, taken by Pulitzer-winning Times photographer Damon Winter, came from a 2015 Times feature on the president’s candidacy.

The photo has since been replaced with a notice that reads: "This image has been removed in response to a report from the copyright holder."

A Twitter spokesperson told The Hill the platform removed the image following a complaint from a rights holder under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, as first reported by Axios. The Lumen Database, a database of legal requests to remove online material, shows a complaint was submitted by the Times on Wednesday.

A spokesperson from the Times confirmed to The Hill that the newspaper filed the takedown notice prompting Twitter's action.


Read more about the incident here. 


INDEPENDENCE DAY REGISTRATION DRIVE: Facebook will launch a voter registration drive aimed at registering millions of Americans to vote during the Fourth of July holiday weekend. 

Beginning Friday morning, all voting age Facebook users in the United States will see a notification at the top of the News Feed directing them to resources to register to vote in their area, including a link to their state’s registration website. 

The holiday weekend effort is part of Facebook’s campaign to encourage Americans to register to vote ahead of primary and general elections this year. The Voting Information Center, rolled out last month, aims to register up to 4 million Americans before the November elections and is meant to provide Americans with authoritative information on how and when to vote. 

Facebook plans to spearhead more registration drives on other platforms it owns — including on Instagram, WhatsApp and Messenger — in the months leading up to November. 

Facebook CEO Mark ZuckerbergMark Elliot ZuckerbergHillicon Valley: Trump order targets TikTok, WeChat | TikTok fires back | Chinese firms hit hard in aftermath Female lawmakers pressure Facebook to crack down on disinformation targeting women leaders Hillicon Valley: Facebook removes Trump post | TikTok gets competitor | Lawmakers raise grid safety concerns MORE discussed the platform’s voter registration efforts in a post last week, writing that information on the voting center will be visible at the top of Facebook and Instagram feeds over the next few months. 

A link to the voting center’s resources will also be added to any elections-focused posts in an effort to combat potential disinformation tied to voting. 

Read more about the registration drive here. 


Lighter click: Happy dunkaccino 

An op-ed to chew on: New legislation required to secure US semiconductor leadership


Silicon Valley elite discuss journalists having too much power in private app (Vice / Jason Koebler, Anna Merlan, and Joseph Cox)

The hate Facebook fosters destroys lives. Here’s what it did to me (The Guardian / Julia Carrie Wong)

Goodbye to the Wild Wild Web (New York Times / Kevin Roose)

How Police Secretly Took Over a Global Phone Network for Organized Crime (Motherboard / Joseph Cox)

White YouTube creators struggle to address past use of racist characters (The Verge / Julia Alexander)