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Welcome! Follow the cyber team, Maggie Miller (@magmill95), and the tech team, Emily Birnbaum (@birnbaum_e) and Chris Mills Rodrigo (@chrisismills).
TICK TOCK ON TIKTOK: The massively popular social media app TikTok is struggling to assuage lawmakers’ concerns over its ties to the Chinese government and allegations that it is amassing data on U.S. users for Beijing.
The company has sought to beef up its lobbying efforts and grow its U.S. content moderation team, but the criticism of Tiktok only intensified Tuesday when lawmakers ripped the company for declining to send a representative to a hearing on tech companies’ ties with China.
Hawley’s criticism: Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, lambasted TikTok, which was represented by an empty chair at the witness table.
“TikTok should answer … to the millions of Americans who use their product with no idea of its risks,” Hawley, one of the Republican Party’s top tech critics, said during his opening remarks.
“They should have been here today,” Hawley continued. “They must … appear under oath to tell the truth about their company, about its ambitions, and what they’re doing with our data.”
TikTok’s response: TikTok said it was unable to provide a “witness who would be able to contribute to a substantive discussion” on such “short notice.”
TikTok was given a week’s notice for the hearing, a source familiar with the invitation told The Hill. The subcommittee was seeking testimony from an executive who could speak to the app’s operations in the U.S.
The context of the hearing: The hearing came at a sensitive moment for the 2-year-old social media app, which has seen its popularity skyrocket over the past six months. TikTok and its Chinese-market counterpart, Douyin, had 625 million monthly active users in August, according to app analytics company App Annie, and the short-form video platform has remained the most-downloaded app on Apple and Google’s stores for months.
That growing popularity has brought a wave of scrutiny from policymakers and regulators, as well as top rival Facebook, which sees TikTok as a serious competitor.
Chinese-owned firm Bytedance bought the U.S. app Musical.ly in 2017 and rebranded the short video platform as TikTok the following year. With more than 110 million downloads in the U.S. last year alone, the platform is trying to build out its American roots to handle the brightening spotlight. TikTok US has grown to encompass hundreds of employees and several offices.
TikTok’s troubles: In the past week alone, though, reports have emerged that a secretive federal panel, the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, has launched a national security review of ByteDance’s acquisition of Musical.ly. And The Washington Post published a stunning investigation on Tuesday revealing that U.S. TikTok employees had been asked to censor videos that did not comport with the Chinese parent company’s views on acceptable speech.
“The idea that TikTok is not sharing any data, is not taking direction from Beijing, that just does not appear to be true,” Hawley told reporters on Tuesday.
ORDER UP: The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Tuesday formally confirmed its approval of the T-Mobile-Sprint merger along party lines, clearing the final hurdle for government approval.
While the approval was announced Oct. 16, the vote margin and order had been held until a final draft of the order could be compiled, according to a source familiar with the process.
The merger of the third- and fourth-largest U.S. wireless providers is still facing a roadblock as a group of 17 state attorneys general forge ahead in its lawsuit to block the deal.
All three Republican FCC commissioners approved the deal.
“The transaction will help secure United States leadership in 5G, close the digital divide in rural America, and enhance competition in the broadband market,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement.
Both Democrats on the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks, made clear last month that they were opposing the deal over concerns that it would come at a steep price to consumers.
“Based on my review of the record, I believe that T-Mobile and Sprint have failed to prove that their merger will benefit the public interest,” Starks said in a statement Tuesday.
SILICON VALLEY DEMS INTRODUCE PRIVACY BILL: A pair of California Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday introduced a tough privacy bill that would significantly curtail Silicon Valley’s control over all Americans’ personal information.
The bill, introduced by Reps. Zoe Lo fgren (D-Calif.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), would create a new federal agency to oversee how the country’s largest and most powerful tech companies amass and use data about their millions of users across the U.S. It would also grant all users expansive rights over their data.
“Our congressional districts are the epicenter of the technological revolution and our constituents in Silicon Valley have brought forward incredible advances, improving the lives of billions of people, but we believe that great missteps have been made,” Eshoo said during a press call on Tuesday. Both lawmakers represent Silicon Valley.
“The American people have been left vulnerable — the private information we share online has been stolen, abused, used for profit, and it’s been grossly mishandled,” Eshoo added.
The introduction of Eshoo and Lofgren’s Online Privacy Act raises the stakes for a separate House effort to work up a privacy bill. For months, top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee have been working to put together federal privacy legislation that could attract Republican co-sponsors, but they have not offered that bill publicly yet.
Lofgren during the press call referred to the bill as “the boldest digital privacy act that’s being introduced.”
“We hope that it will be a marker for those who are taking a look at how to protect privacy rights in this digital era,” Lofgren said.
AT&T SETTLES WITH FTC: AT&T Mobility, LLC will pay $60 million as part of a settlement with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) after allegations that the company misled millions of consumers with its “unlimited” data plans.
The FTC filed a complaint against the company in 2014. It alleged that the company did not tell consumers that if they reached a certain data threshold, AT&T would lower data speeds, according to the commission’s release. The commission argued that this effort began in 2011 for users who utilized as little as 2 gigabytes of data. This policy has affected 3.5 million consumers as of October 2014.
“As detailed in the Commission’s complaint, AT&T wanted the rewards without the risks, so it turned its offer of an ‘unlimited’ data plan into a bait-and-switch scam that victimized millions of Americans,” Democratic Commissioner Rohit Chopra wrote in a statement.
The commission said the company cannot make any public claims about speed or data without releasing information on their restrictions as part of the settlement. The release stated the disclosures are required to be “prominent, not buried in fine print or hidden behind hyperlinks.”
The $60 million will go to a fund intended to partially refund former and current AT&T customers.
AT&T told The Hill in a statement that the company appreciates “the FTC for working with us to resolve this matter.”
“Even though it has been years since we applied this network management tool in the way described by the FTC, we believe this is in the best interests of consumers,” the statement said.
AT&T added that it “couldn’t disagree more” with the Chopra’s “baseless characterization of the case.”
“None of his allegations were ever proved in court,” the statement said. “We were fully prepared to defend ourselves, but decided settling was in the best interests of consumers.”
WHAT A HACK: Four members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation from both sides of the aisle introduced a bill Tuesday to expand America’s cybersecurity workforce.
The Harvesting American Cybersecurity Knowledge through Education (HACKED) Act would enhance existing science education and cybersecurity programs in the National Institute of Standards and Technology, National Science Foundation, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Transportation.
It would do so by incentivizing the recruitment of educators in the field, designing clear paths for professionals and increasing coordination between the agencies listed above.
“Cybersecurity risks are constant in the growing digital world. It is critical that the United States stay ahead of malicious cyber activity with a workforce that can safeguard our innovation, research, and work environments,” committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said in a statement.
“This legislation is an important first step to expand the cybersecurity workforce and provide tools to support necessary education and training.”
GOOGLE EMPLOYEES CALL FOR CLIMATE ACTION: More than 1,100 Google employees on Monday signed an open letter calling on the company to commit to a wide-ranging plan to address the “urgency of the global climate crisis and its disproportionate harm to marginalized people.”
The letter, posted on Medium and addressed to Google Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat, calls on the tech giant to commit to zero emissions by 2030 and to stop agreeing to contracts that “enable or accelerate the extraction of fossil fuels.” In addition, the letter asks the company to cease funding for think tanks, lobbyists and politicians who deny climate change.
It also asks that the company commit to zero collaboration with “entities enabling the incarceration, surveillance, displacement, or oppression of refugees or frontline communities.”
“Google is a global company with billions of users across the world, many of whom are already bearing the brunt of climate disaster,” the letter says. “Google’s code of conduct requires respect for users and for opportunities. As Google workers, we are committed to putting our users first, and Google must do the same.”
The open call for Google to take action on climate change comes as employees in the tech sphere put more pressure on corporations to make a proactive effort to address the issue. In September, Amazon announced a comprehensive new plan to tackle climate change amid escalating pressure from employees to make the company more green and sustainable.
ICMYI ON ELECTION SECURITY: Officials and cyber experts are expressing confidence in reforms made to prevent a repeat of election hacking and foreign interference one year ahead of their biggest test yet, Election Day 2020, even as they remain vigilant.
This optimism comes even as lawmakers remain sharply divided along party lines on how to address election security concerns.
A LIGHTER CLICK: It’s officially Mariah Season
AN OP-ED TO CHEW ON: This is the golden age of innovation
NOTABLE LINKS FROM AROUND THE WEB:
Exxon climate ads aren’t “political,” according to Twitter (Heated)
Inside TikTok: A culture clash where U.S. views about censorship often were overridden by the Chinese bosses (The Washington Post)
Amazon, Apple, and Google are distributing products from companies building China’s surveillance state (Buzzfeed News)
What does a Chinese company want with gay hookup app Grindr? (Los Angeles Magazine)