With help from John Hendel and Leah Nylen
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— Eyes on Lander: The first vote on President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the White House tech office is finally here. But if he survives confirmation, what will Eric Lander do?
— On the agenda: The FCC’s monthly meeting will focus on one of acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel’s top interests: the steep costs inmates pay to make phone calls.
— She dissents: Acting FTC chair Rebecca Kelly Slaughter hits back against accusations that the agency was abusing its statutory powers before SCOTUS stripped them.
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TODAY: LANDER’S COMMITTEE VOTE — The Senate Commerce Committee is set to vote today on Lander’s nomination to lead the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. It’s a role that Biden is elevating to the Cabinet level for the first time, and Lander is the last of his initial Cabinet nominees who has yet to be confirmed.
Multiple controversies delayed his confirmation, and at least one lawmaker, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), is planning to vote no, according to her office. At Lander’s nomination hearing, Blackburn said she was troubled by his past interactions with Jeffrey Epstein, the late financier and sex offender. Lander defended himself, saying he met Epstein only twice before learning of his “sordid history” and never saw him again.
If ultimately confirmed, Lander will serve as the president’s top science adviser, but it’s not immediately clear what his portfolio will be. The Biden administration has stood up task forces on wide-ranging issues, such as the pandemic and climate change, that could fall under Lander’s purview as OSTP director.
— One possibility: Lawmakers have been interested in what Lander has to say about increasing diversity in STEM, fields that have traditionally lacked women and people of color. Lander himself has drawn criticism over downplaying the work of two female scientists who helped develop breakthrough genetics technology.
He has since promised to make “full inclusion and equitable outcomes a high priority,” such as by assembling a diverse OSTP and presidential science and tech advisory council. He also said he would create a plan to increase the numbers of women and minorities in STEM by half. “Increasing diversity and advancing equity in STEM is critical to our success in science and technology, and it requires a systematic approach,” he said.
INMATE PHONE CALL COSTS BACK IN FCC CROSSHAIRS — FCC commissioners will vote today on moving forward on plans to curb high inmate calling fees, at least for interstate calls, a longtime problem plaguing prisoners who try to stay connected with family and friends. Among the changes, the draft order would cap the interstate interim rates for debit and prepaid calling at 12 to 14 cents per minute, depending on the size of the institution. The current cap of 21 cents a minute can sometimes total several dollars for a conversation, criminal justice advocates lament.
— The FCC had started work on these issues with a unanimous vote last summer put forth by then-chief Ajit Pai. Republican commissioners had rejected an earlier attempt to lower fees for both interstate and intrastate phone calls, arguing that the commission lacked authority to place any limits for calls that didn’t cross state lines.
— Pressure to watch: Some criminal justice advocates, including representatives of the petitioners who first pressed the FCC to address the issue, argue that Rosenworcel needs to go further than the draft order. Advocacy group Color of Change, for example, wants the FCC to make prison phone calls completely free of charge.
SLAUGHTER PLAYS DEFENSE ON 13(B) — Slaughter reiterated her calls for Congress to cement the agency’s authority to obtain monetary damages for consumers from companies that violate the law in antitrust and consumer protection cases, a month after the Supreme Court gutted much of that authority.
In a letter Tuesday to the Senate Commerce Committee, Slaughter defended the agency against accusations last month from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that the agency has abused its statutory powers and is trying to broaden the scope of its authority.
“It is my view that the Chamber’s position is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the history and function of Section 13(b),” she wrote, referencing the statutory provision in the FTC Act the agency has historically used to seek monetary relief for consumers. Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would restore the agency’s 13(b) authority.
— The Chamber’s case: The Chamber said in its letter that the FTC should use Section 13(b) to seek injunctive relief, but not in cases involving monetary penalties, which is covered by Section 19. That provision limits action to the most severe cases. The Chamber also took issue with the possibility of the FTC going after companies retroactively.
— Slaughter claps back: Curtailing the FTC’s ability to charge businesses under Section 13(b) “would be a boon to those who engage in unfair, deceptive, or anticompetitive business practices, at the expense of harmed consumers and honest competitors,” she wrote.
Slaughter added that it didn’t make sense to limit section 13(b)’s authority to only “ongoing or imminent conduct,” which she said would allow companies to violate the law before the FTC could go after them, rather than deter them from violating it in the first place.
HOUSE GOP PAGES PELOSI — The GOP ranking members of every House committee are urging Speaker Nancy Pelosi to make sure the House does due diligence before moving legislation focused on competing with China, according to a letter sent this morning, as Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s recently renamed U.S. Innovation and Competition Act barrels through the upper chamber.
They pointed to the bipartisan work in both the Senate and the House on similar bills and said they wanted to make sure “we do not waste this opportunity to develop strong and thoughtful policy by shoehorning it through using reconciliation,” referring to the Senate budget procedure by which legislation passes with 51 votes. Schumer has said he hopes to bring the legislative package to a vote by the end of this month.
FTC’S FRONTIER LAWSUIT REIGNITES BROADBAND OVERSIGHT DEBATE — The FTC and several state attorneys general sued rural telecom provider Frontier Communications on Wednesday for what they said were misleading advertisements of DSL internet speeds.
— FTC’s Slaughter argued “proper” regulatory oversight from the FCC could have conceivably prevented the dispute, portending similar jurisdictional spats later this year. “As important as this case is, it also shows why the FTC can never fully fill the regulatory gap left in the wake of the repeal of Net Neutrality at the @FCC, the expert agency on telecommunications services,” she tweeted Wednesday.
— That Trump-era repeal of net neutrality rules in 2017 yanked broadband regulatory oversight from the FCC and gave it to the FTC, part of a long-running debate over what agency is best suited to police the internet service provider marketplace. Democrats say they want to bring some version of the Obama-era net neutrality rules back once Biden nominates a third Democratic member of the FCC.
— Asked about the lawsuit, Frontier told MT that the complaint is “without merit” and filled with “baseless allegations” that exaggerate the financial consequences for Frontier’s customers. “Frontier’s DSL Internet speeds have been clearly and accurately articulated, defined and described in the Company’s marketing materials and disclosures,” the company said.
APPLE NEEDS APP STORE CONTROL BECAUSE OF FACEBOOK — Apple’s top engineer, Craig Federighi, didn’t name the social network when he testified Wednesday in the company’s legal showdown with Epic Games, but Facebook was the clear target of his remarks.
Allowing companies other than Apple to distribute apps “would subject iOS users to a huge decrease in their safety,” Federighi said. The iPhone-maker reviews every app to ensure it complies with Apple’s privacy rules, including new App Tracking Transparency requirements that force developers to obtain permission before tracking users. Facebook is the most vocal opponent of Apple’s tracking change, which it says interferes with mobile advertising.
“There are many entities that would love to get around these privacy protections,” Federighi testified, but they “are only enforceable through app review and central distribution.”
LATE-NIGHT UPDATE: Zhang Yiming, co-founder of TikTok owner ByteDance, is stepping down as CEO, Reuters reported. He will be replaced by co-founder Liang Rubo.
Maryam Khan Cope is AMSL’s new head of U.S. government affairs. She most recently served as director of government affairs for the Semiconductor Industry Association. … NetApp and NI join TechNet. … Colleen Chien, a law professor at Santa Clara University, will be a senior counselor in the Commerce Department’s office of general counsel. … Erin McPike and Corey Chambliss have joined the Facebook policy communications team. McPike most recently was a managing director at Tusk Strategies and Chambliss was head of comms at Industrious. Both are Bloomberg campaign alums.
NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association is adding Smart Tribal Community and Smart Connected Community programs. … New coalition Broadband Equity for All, which counts AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Microsoft and Verizon as members, aims to provide a long-term broadband benefit that includes low-income Americans.
High alert: Israeli extremists are turning to WhatsApp to organize attacks against Palestinians, NYT reports.
AltTube: Conservative venture capitalists, including Peter Thiel, are pouring money into Rumble, a video platform popular with the right-wing crowd. WSJ has more.
Q&A: Prabhakar Raghavan holds the top job at Google. Just don’t call him the CEO, according to Wired.
My head hurts: Why did the Justice Department subpoena Twitter to find who was behind a Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) parody account? Apparently, a threat on Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. NYT dives in.
Stop that: “Colorado Makes Doxxing Public Health Workers Illegal,” via NYT.
Polyglot or poly-not: “Is that Tom Hanks speaking in Japanese? No, it’s just AI,” via Reuters.
Fresh money: The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced $288 million in funding for states to build broadband infrastructure.
Moshing at home: “Spotify is entering the virtual concert business, just as in-person concerts are becoming more of a possibility,” the Verge writes.
Adding to the KOR-US: Google called on the U.S. and South Korea to find more opportunities to collaborate on tech issues, according to a company post released ahead of Biden’s bilateral meeting today with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
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