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Congress Acts on Big Tech

Dispatches from our founder
This Week
Hello, friends,
Congress has been busy with a flurry of tech industry legislation recently: 
On Jan. 20, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s landmark antitrust bill, which bans large online platforms from giving preference to their own products on their platforms and provides additional funding and support for antitrust enforcement. The bill still faces hurdles to passage in the Senate and reconciliation with the House version. But it is “the first time that a major tech competition bill has gone through a Senate committee,” Senator Klobuchar told Politico. 
On Feb. 10, the EARN IT Act, introduced by Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), advanced out of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The act would remove Section 230 protections if an online tech platform is unable to prove that it is sufficiently protecting children from abuse material online. The bill drew immediate criticism from those who say it will deter companies from offering end-to-end encryption. 
And on Feb. 4, the House passed the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology, and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act of 2022, which includes $52 billion to support domestic semiconductor manufacturing to combat the current chip shortage. 
To understand one congressional approach to tech policy, I interviewed Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who represents Silicon Valley in Congress and has laid out a tech policy agenda in his recent book Dignity in a Digital Age: Making Tech Work for All of Us (Simon & Schuster, 2022). My interview with Khanna aired last week on C-SPAN
Khanna’s district includes Apple’s and Google’s headquarters. A progressive, he is one of the few members of Congress who does not take money from political action committees or lobbyists. He is a lawyer and an economist who served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce during the Obama administration. In his book, he calls for a wide array of tech policies ranging from data use restrictions and gig worker protections to investments in workforce training that could spread tech jobs beyond Silicon Valley. 
An excerpt of our interview is below, edited for brevity and clarity.
Ro Khanna
Ro Khanna
Angwin:  In your book, you take positions on things like the “right to repair” that likely don’t make you friends in your district with the tech giant Apple. It’s a brave book in that respect. I would love to hear from you, your overarching governing philosophy, and how you square it with the sometimes libertarian views of your district.
Khanna: My theme was how do we have more democratic accountability for technology? Government certainly has a role to make sure people have equal access now to participating in that market. As I often say, you may have a competition on a football field, but everyone has to have helmets and a uniform, and government is basically trying to do that. 
Angwin: I want to talk about concentration of economic power. You opposed the House antitrust bills that passed out of committee last year and said they were poorly drafted. The Senate has just advanced legislation containing similar principles. So I’m curious: Where you stand on the current antitrust legislation and what you want to see in it.
Khanna: I largely support Senator Klobuchar’s approach, and I think that the Senate version is better than the House version. There’s still certain tweaks I would make, but let me give you the overall philosophy. 
I do think in certain cases breakups are justified. On Facebook, for example, where they’ve acquired Instagram and WhatsApp, I do think that there you should have an unraveling of that company. And I think we want to have a ban on mergers that are acquiring competitors. 
But I don’t think you want to ban or be overly restrictive on all mergers, as there are a lot of startups that have an acquisition strategy as their exit.
Angwin: I imagine it’s tricky for you. Google employees are your top campaign contributors; they’re in your district. The company put out a blog post that appeared to oppose Klobuchar’s antitrust bill, claiming that generally Congress’s anti-tech stance and proposals were going to harm national security, innovation, small businesses, security, and privacy. How do you balance your stance with the interests and desires of this large constituent?
Khanna: While I don’t take corporate money or PAC money directly from Google, it’s fair to say that I have a lot of employees at Google or people and tech leaders at Google and other tech companies who have supported me. I’m proud of having the support of innovators and technology leaders. But I have been critical of the company in a number of places, including in the book. I say the deal that they have with Apple, in terms of being the default [search engine], is in my view, too exclusive, and Apple should offer more choices for people. 
Angwin: In your book you propose an Internet Bill of Rights. It reminded me of the Obama administration, when they proposed a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights.
Khanna: President Obama made a good start with this. The difference is, when I came around to doing this, it was after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and just having the right to know what was happening with your data, which is basically the orientation of the Obama framework, seemed insufficient. 
The challenge is that when these companies get our data and use that data to create intricate social profiles and then target us, that is allowing for a lot of manipulation. And so the Internet Bill of Rights—the core of it—is to say we’ve got to restrict the access and use of data. That the data should not be used to manipulate people’s agency. 
This means, first, opt-in consent. But it also means data minimization—people shouldn’t be using data in ways that aren’t necessary for the core function. And as Jack Balkin writes, there should be sort of a fiduciary duty between people who have this data and the well-being of consumers. If we can restrict the use of this data, we would do a lot in restoring people’s confidence that they can be free agents, free thinkers, and not subject to the manipulation on these platforms.
Angwin: You say in the book that if you could choose only one law that would improve the online experience, you would choose opt-in consent for data collection, transfer, and use. But anyone who’s ever been greeted by the accept cookies prompt on a website knows that it’s pretty easy to get someone to opt in if you just harass the user enough. So given what we know about the harms of data collection, tell me why you think opt in is a good enough standard.
Khanna: It’s not sufficient, but I think it’s necessary and can move the needle. I think opt-in consent is a good first step to help with some of the worst abuses.
Angwin: There are more aggressive proposals out there. Your colleague, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who represents my former hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., has introduced legislation to ban surveillance advertising, which would force advertisers to return to their old techniques of advertising based on content near the ad or the geography of where the user is located. Some say it could be a good way to break up the Google and Facebook dominance of online ad markets, and others say it could destroy the industry. What do you think? Do you support her bill?
Khanna: I’m not for a total ban because I think there are certain uses of targeted advertising that are fine. For example, if I’m living in Fremont, which is my home, and I want to have pizza, it’s fine that the pizza places that are advertising to me are near Fremont and not in Washington, D.C., or in Chicago. And a lot of small businesses actually rely on targeted advertising and a lot of—actually ironically—newspapers, smaller newspapers, rely on targeted advertising because they can’t pay bulk rates. And so to ban all targeted advertising strikes me as overbroad. But I do think this is where individuals can say, “Here are things that I don’t want to be targeted for, that my data shouldn’t be used in these ways.” And of course, if people are being targeted on categories of race or gender or religion, that is a place where I think you should have broader regulations and prohibitions.
Angwin: Her bill does allow the targeting in Fremont geographically.
Khanna: I haven’t studied that bill in detail, but if it has sufficient balance, where you could still have small businesses and local papers use targeted advertising to build their businesses but that you’re getting at the most egregious types of targeted advertising, then I would be supportive of that approach.
Angwin: A lot of your book is about job creation. You’re really passionate about bringing jobs to places outside of Silicon Valley, and you have ideas for how to do that. There’s different ways to view these issues: Bring the people to where the jobs are now or bring the jobs to new locations. It seems like you’ve staked out a position on the latter?
Khanna: I’m for building more housing in Silicon Valley. I represent a district with over $11 trillion of market cap in the surrounding areas. And yet in East San Jose in parts of San Jose people are hugely rent burdened with 50 to 60 percent of their income going to rent. So from a perspective of just the Valley being a more equitable place to live, we’ve got to build more housing and more affordable housing there and overcome the NIMBYism in some of the parts of the community. But that’s not going to do enough for the rest of the country. And so the promise of the book in some sense is new job creation without cultural displacement. What if we could bring more economic prosperity to communities without asking you to move if you don’t want to.
Angwin: What is the key policy thing that would make that transition happen?
Khanna: First, a significant investment in our land grant universities, our HBCUs, our smaller private colleges, in partnering with the private sector to give people a credential or skills in what a digital job looks like. We don’t have the proper training in a lot of the places right now, and we haven’t really funded it, and I believe, if you do that, you would provide a pathway to many people having these jobs. I’m working actually with Google to do that in a number of rural communities. And in HBCUs, I worked with Accenture. There are a couple of models where it’s worked. We should scale that. 
And the second thing is, I would say, for government contracts, [we should] require a percentage of these tech companies to have a workforce that is rural, African American, or Latino to bid on these contracts. I think that would incentivize them to diversify their workforce. And same with gender.
At the heart of the book is this sense that you had the deindustrialization of so many places in this country. Cleveland was the Silicon Valley of a time in the 20th century, as was Detroit. They want to participate with pride in the economic production of the 21st century. 
Providing a roadmap for people in different parts of the country to work with folks on the coasts may help reduce some of the bitterness, some of the division that’s plaguing our democracy. The motivating factor for writing the book is how do we have technology in the service of democratic ideals as opposed to divorced from democratic ideals.
As always, thanks for reading.
Julia Angwin
The Markup
Additional Hello World research by Eve Zelickson.
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