With help from Emily Birnbaum and John Hendel
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— Defectors or reformers from the inside? A growing number of people who’ve made their careers fighting Silicon Valley on civil liberties issues are taking jobs … with Silicon Valley.
— IRS caves to Congress: Lawmakers declared victory after the tax agency dropped its plan to deploy facial recognition tech, but legislation banning its broader use is still languishing.
— FCC zeroes in on ‘digital redlining’: The agency announced a new task force to prevent digital discrimination — a key objective of the new infrastructure law.
IT’S TUESDAY, FEB. 8. Welcome to Morning Tech! Today is Safer Internet Day — not sure if the internet is supposed to be safer today, or if we’re supposed to talk about how it should be safer but isn’t. Is it possible for the internet to be too safe? Please advise.
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CIVIL LIBERTIES EXPERTS DECAMP TO BIG TECH — The tight-knit civil liberties advocacy community has helped shepherd through the most significant reforms to government surveillance over the past decade.
But a growing number of experienced civil liberties and privacy activists have taken jobs at major tech companies in recent years, even as the data collection and practices of tech companies and the government come under increasing scrutiny.
— Crunching the numbers: At least nine high-level advocates focused on government surveillance, data ethics and privacy have left civil society to work at major tech companies since 2019, according to an analysis of recent departures by Emily and Daniel Lippman.
Four of them left during the past year alone: Hugh Handeyside, a former American Civil Liberties Union staff attorney at its national security project, left for Microsoft; senior ACLU legislative and advocacy counsel Manar Waheed and Georgetown Center on Privacy and Technology senior associate Harrison Rudolph both went to Facebook’s parent company Meta; and Michelle Richardson, the former director of the data and privacy project at the Center for Democracy and Technology, moved to Apple.
Five in all went to Meta, two left for Microsoft and the other two went to Apple and Twitter.
— Working from the inside: These experts bring with them their deep knowledge of data ethics and privacy. Depending on who you ask, that’s either a win for privacy advocates, who want like-minded people in the rooms where big decisions are made, or a serious loss of expertise for an already small civil liberties community.
But Sascha Meinrath, founder of the Open Technology Institute and digital rights activist, said he’s alarmed by the trend. “That’s been the narrative — ‘now we’ve got good guys on the inside,’” said Meinrath, who’s now a professor of telecommunications policy and founder of X-Lab at Penn State. “I’ve yet to see a single meaningful reform coming out of that, and to me it just points to a failed theory of change.”
Structural issues — There are hardly any well-resourced civil liberties groups beyond the ACLU, and funding for surveillance issues is drying up in a post-Snowden world. Many of the groups’ retention struggles come down to funding. Several advocates who took tech industry jobs said their salaries doubled or even tripled.
CONGRESS (KIND OF) CURBS IRS’ MOVE TOWARDS FACIAL RECOGNITION: The Internal Revenue Service announced Monday it’s abandoning its implementation of facial recognition technology to identify individuals seeking to access online tax records, just hours after an outcry from Democrats in both chambers. But bills banning the use of similar technology across the federal government remain stalled.
— One-two punch: Two letters — one from Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and another from Democratic Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) — both called Monday for IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig to immediately end the agency’s implementation of third-party facial recognition service ID.me. The IRS reversed course within hours, pledging to “transition away” from third-party facial recognition service ID.me “in the coming weeks.”
Victory lap: Wyden said his office was informed Monday by the Treasury Department about the shift, and added that the agency made a “smart decision … as I requested earlier today.”
— Legislating by letter? A Treasury spokesperson wouldn’t comment when asked whether congressional pressure made the difference in its reversal, and a Wyden spokesperson didn’t respond when asked the same question. Monday’s Democratic push against facial recognition tech mirrors one made last Thursday by 15 Senate Republicans, including Finance Committee ranking member Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), in a letter sent to the IRS.
— Split Congress: The apparently bipartisan outrage over the IRS’ now-scrapped plans masks significant divisions on Capitol Hill over federal uses of facial recognition tech. The tech industry has lobbied aggressively against blanket bans on the technology, and bipartisan support for (at least) a temporary moratorium has waned as police use of facial recognition tools against protesters has become a key point of contention.
Legislation does exist to ban the use of facial recognition across the federal government — but despite bipartisan interest in reining in the technology’s use (at least at the IRS), it hasn’t gained much traction.
The Facial Recognition and Biometric Technology Moratorium Act (H.R. 3907), legislation banning all federal uses of facial recognition tech absent congressional authorization, was introduced last June with support from Wyden and Jayapal. But the bills have yet to be taken up by committees in either chamber. No Republicans — including those senators who urged the IRS to abandon its facial recognition plans — sponsor the legislation. (Some Republicans, like Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), do back some specific restrictions on the purchase and use of facial recognition data.)
FIRST IN MT: NEW FCC TASK FORCE WILL TAKE AIM AT DIGITAL REDLINING — FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel will today announce the formation of a task force aimed at coming up with plans to keep internet service providers from discriminating against any particular community — a practice frequently dubbed “digital redlining.” Helming the effort will be senior agency FCC officials D’wana Terry, Sanford Williams and Alejandro Roark.
— “This work will touch almost every part of the agency,” Rosenworcel said in a statement. “Your zip code should not determine access to broadband — which this pandemic has proven is a must-have, just like electricity or water.”
— Thank you, infrastructure law: The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (H.R. 3684) signed last year directed the FCC to adopt rules by November 2023 aimed at preventing digital discrimination of broadband access rooted in factors like income, race, ethnicity and religion. The law also directs the FCC to develop model policies and best practices that states can adopt, and to tweak its public complaint process to better address digital redlining concerns — all issues that Rosenworcel says the task force will help tackle.
The provision was one of the most hotly debated parts of last year’s infrastructure negotiations. Many left-leaning telecom advocates cheered the inclusion of the language but worried there might be loopholes in the statutory language that could aid ISPs — that’ll put pressure on how the FCC ultimately writes these rules.
— We’ll keep an ear out for Rosenworcel’s keynote remarks at this morning’s Incompas summit for chatter about these broadband plans. Several federal officials tasked with implementing parts of the Biden administration’s broadband infrastructure agenda are also on deck to speak, including point people at the Commerce and Treasury Department, as well as lawmakers who helped negotiate the law (and will now oversee its rollout).
LANDER OUT AT OSTP — Eric Lander, head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, became the Biden administration’s first cabinet-level official to resign on Monday.
— Zero tolerance: Lander tendered his resignation hours after POLITICO’s Alex Thompson revealed internal White House findings that Lander bullied and demeaned subordinates — practices President Joe Biden had specifically vowed to squash in the post-Trump era. Read Alex’s Monday night write-up for more.
FIRST IN MT: FAITH LEADERS DEMAND STOP TO INSTAGRAM FOR CHILDREN — A group of 75 religious leaders across a wide variety of faiths and denominations is sending a letter this morning to Meta chief executive Mark Zuckerberg urging him to “permanently cancel plans for Instagram Kids.”
“A pause is not enough,” said the clergy, who were brought together by children’s advocacy nonprofit Fairplay. Among other arguments, the faith leaders said regular social media use among kids “undermines the sort of unitive consciousness and empathetic understanding that spiritual paths promote.”
Sharon Bradford Franklin and Beth Ann Williams were confirmed by the Senate to be chair and member of the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. … Cobun Zweifel-Keegan is the new managing director for Washington D.C. at the International Association of Privacy Professionals. … Paul Brigner joins Electric Coin Company as head of U.S. policy and strategic advocacy. … Min Wei is the new chief operating officer at GreenBox POS.
Breaking up is hard: Venture capitalist and Donald Trump enthusiast Peter Thiel is retiring from the board of directors at Facebook to focus more on politics, the Washington Post reports.
Threading the needle: The conservative Heritage Foundation is out with a new strategy to combat Silicon Valley’s “totalitarianism” without ruffling too many feathers on the right (read Emily for more on Heritage’s predicament).
You can’t make me: The Wall Street Journal writes that the metaverse will fundamentally change our workdays — whether we like it or not.
First in MT — Progressive tech group Access Now is pushing Spotify to publish a human rights policy in the midst of an ongoing feud over podcaster Joe Rogan, who’s been broadly accused of spreading Covid-related misinformation.
Since it’s Safer Internet Day: Videosharing site TikTok is rolling out new policies that restrict content glorifying disordered eating or contain anti-LGBTQ speech, Rebecca Kern reports for Pros.
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