With help from Tim Starks, Jeremy B. White, John Hendel and Cristiano Lima
Editor’s Note: This edition of Morning Tech is published weekdays at 10 a.m. POLITICO Pro Technology subscribers hold exclusive early access to the newsletter each morning at 6 a.m. Learn more about POLITICO Pro’s comprehensive policy intelligence coverage, policy tools and services, at politicopro.com.
— WhatsApp lawsuit: WhatsApp’s lawsuit against the Israeli firm NSO Group threatens to spill out in several directions, potentially seeping into the encryption debate and other legal actions.
— Gig economy grumblings: A tech industry coalition unveiled a new ballot initiative in California that would shield gig companies like Uber and Lyft from having to classify their workers as employees.
— Facebook’s anti-vax actions: Sen. Bob Menendez’s office is pressing Facebook for answers on its efforts to crack down on anti-vaccine misinformation.
WHAT’S UP, WEDNESDAY? WELCOME TO MORNING TECH! I’m your host, Alexandra Levine. New tech podcast alert: What Next: TBD, Slate’s just-launched show about technology, power and the future.
Got a news tip? Write Alex at [email protected] or @Ali_Lev. An event for our calendar? Send details to [email protected]. Anything else? Full team info below. And don’t forget: add @MorningTech and @PoliticoPro on Twitter.
WHATSAPP MISHAP — Facebook subsidiary WhatsApp’s legal war against Israeli cyberintelligence firm NSO Group over a May intrusion that targeted human rights activists, journalists and others promises to be a big one, our friends at Morning Cybersecurity report. And it could roll up other debates, too, like whether encryption helps or harms public safety and national security. WhatsApp head Will Cathcart announced the federal court action Tuesday, writing in an op-ed that “we have tied certain WhatsApp accounts used during the attacks back to NSO. While their attack was highly sophisticated, their attempts to cover their tracks were not entirely successful.”
— “In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them,” NSO Group replied. “Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists.” The statement also answered another point Cathcart made about not weakening encryption. “The truth is that strongly encrypted platforms are often used by pedophile rings, drug kingpins and terrorists to shield their criminal activity,” read the remarks, which echo a recent Trump administration push against warrant-proof encrypted tech. “Without sophisticated technologies, the law enforcement agencies meant to keep us all safe face insurmountable hurdles.”
— Revelations in the WhatsApp court filing about the surveillance targets could feed into other legal actions, too, as human rights groups and others are separately fighting to have Israel revoke NSO Group’s export license. “WhatsApp deserves credit for their tough stance against these malicious attacks, including their efforts to hold NSO to account in the courts,” Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty International’s technology division Amnesty Tech, said in a statement.
UBER, LYFT ON THE GIG ECONOMY DEFENSIVE — We finally saw some language Tuesday from gig companies like Uber and Lyft seeking to put the question of whether their workers are employees or independent contractors to California voters. POLITICO California’s Jeremy B. White has the details on an industry coalition’s newly unveiled ballot initiative, which would shield gig companies from having to classify workers as employees, with commensurate benefits and rights. (A 2018 California Supreme Court decision established a stringent set of standards for treating workers as independent contractors, and a recently signed law that takes effect in the new year codified that classification.)
— The proposed ballot initiative that Uber and co. are filing is a weaker version of prospective legislation they’ve floated. Both would give gig workers a minimum wage and access to benefits. But there’s a crucial difference: Their legislative proposal offers a path to gig worker unionization, while the ballot initiative doesn’t. The move appears aimed at pushing lawmakers wary of a ballot fight into passing a bill.
TABLE TOPICS: HOW TECH IS SHAPING AMERICAN TRADE — Google’s Karan Bhatia this morning will highlight a new report on how tech and the internet are helping small businesses in the U.S. reach new customers abroad — even as the search giant is under scrutiny over its own market power. (The Hill gathering marking the release of that report is being hosted by Google and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Technology Engagement Center.) Through the company’s products and tools, small businesses “are finding new markets and building relationships with customers around the world,” Bhatia, the vice president of government affairs and public policy, wrote in a blog post teasing this morning’s goings-on. “Still, we know that a majority of small businesses currently do not export their products, and many that do export continue to find it a difficult process. That’s where technology can come in.”
— The event: The focus on how the internet has helped grow exports for small businesses is noteworthy given that Google is currently under investigation by nearly every state attorney general over concerns about antitrust and how the company’s online dominance might be hurting smaller businesses. (The Justice Department and both chambers of Congress are also conducting antitrust probes of internet giants’ effect on smaller rivals.)
— And the report: The study being unveiled highlights small business-exporters’ contributions to the U.S. economy and how technology can extend that impact by expanding businesses’ access to foreign markets. Some 95 percent of global consumers are outside the U.S., but most small businesses are not exporting their goods, the study found, leaving much room to grow — better access to markets overseas “would increase economic output by $81 billion and add 900,000 jobs” in the U.S., according to the report.
WICKER EYES CONSUMER BILLING RIDER FOR TV REAUTH — Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) suggested a measure to reauthorize a longstanding satellite law may be the right vehicle for Democratic cable billing legislation. The TRUE Fees Act, S. 510, would require phone, cable and broadband providers to include all charges in their advertised pricing, and would prevent providers from putting in their service contracts requirements that consumers take disputes to forced arbitration instead of suing. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) have pushed the bicameral measure and have likewise said it could be bundled in the satellite TV law, known as STELAR. (Lawmakers are still mulling whether they need to reauthorize it at all; it expires Dec. 31.)
— Although time is running short for Congress to move a reauth bill, Wicker told John this week that his panel is nearing a draft reauthorization text and that he’s in the midst of talks about whether he can include language along the lines of Markey’s proposal. “I think Senator Markey is on to something,” Wicker told John on Tuesday. “And I’m working with him … and I may even be meeting with him in an hour or two.”
TROUBLE IN THE AIRWAVES? — The satellite operators of the so-called C-Band Alliance are not only counting newfound backing from various right-leaning groups, but also joined with carriers including AT&T and Verizon on Tuesday to outline a set of principles that should guide any sale of the 5G-friendly spectrum the companies hold. These satellite firms and others insist a private sale, rather than a traditional FCC-run auction, would be the fastest way to get the 5G airwaves out to the commercial sector.
— Nevertheless, no House lawmakers emerged to back their plan for a private sale during Tuesday’s Energy and Commerce telecom subcommittee hearing. And Senate appropriator John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) is gearing up to oppose the idea in conversation with President Donald Trump in a matter of days, as John reported Tuesday. He is also planning to meet with FCC staff on spectrum auctioning this week as he considers potential new appropriations hearings on the matter. Kennedy, along with many House lawmakers, favors an FCC-run auction of the spectrum and framed the satellite firms’ plan as a money grab. “I think it’s a bunch of pigs trying to put all four feet and their snout in the trough,” Kennedy said. “And shame on the FCC. The FCC members ought to hide their heads in a bag if they do this.” If the FCC allows a private sale, Kennedy added, “I am going to raise more hell than they can possibly imagine.”
MENENDEZ WANTS ANSWERS FROM FACEBOOK ON VACCINE MISINFO — Sen. Bob Menendez’s office (D-N.J.) is seeking a briefing from Facebook on its efforts to crack down on anti-vaccine misinformation, a spokesperson tells MT. The move follows a Daily Beast report that the company’s campaign to curb such content has penalized some legitimate health groups while letting some anti-vaccine misinformation slide. “Whether it’s an advertisement, a page, or a group, @facebook needs to take action to curb this dangerous misinformation…ASAP,” Menendez tweeted in response to the report Tuesday. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was pressed on his personal stance on vaccines by Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) at last week’s highly publicized House Financial Services hearing.
— A Facebook spokesperson said that a series of pro-vaccine ads, which The Daily Beast reported had been taken down, “were incorrectly rejected and they have since been restored.” The spokesperson added that the company intends to follow through on Menendez’s request for a briefing.
Sean Perryman, the Internet Association’s director of diversity and inclusion policy and counsel, was appointed to the FCC Advisory Committee on Diversity and Digital Empowerment. … Roger Sherman, founder and former managing director of Waneta Strategies, and former chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, has joined the communications technology strategic advisory firm Quadra Partners; Chris Helzer, former chief engineer in the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, has also joined the firm. … USTelecom – The Broadband Association this week announced new officers and additions to its board of directors and leadership committee.
Facebook ads mess, continued: A San Francisco man declared his intent to run for governor so that he, too, can sidestep Facebook’s policy to not fact-check content posted by politicians, CNN reports. (Plus, via Twitter: Facebook responds to the man, then the man responds to Facebook.)
And finally, Facebook opinion: “We shouldn’t become the gatekeeper of truth on candidate ads,” Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, Katie Harbath, and the company’s director of policy management, Nell McCarthy, wrote in USA Today.
On hold: “Los Angeles transit officials today relaxed their threat to ‘immediately’ remove Uber-owned Jump bikes and scooters from city streets amid a dispute over geolocation data, instead offering the company an appeals process,” Katy Murphy reports for Pros.
Schoolyard surveillance: Hundreds of apps are being used at schools across the country to track students’ every move — from doing homework to taking mid-class bathroom breaks, WaPo reports.
ICYMI: With power shut off in parts of California, a safety precaution during the state’s continuing wildfires, many residents have inadvertently lost cellphone service, The New York Times reports, putting them further in harm’s way.
Tips, comments, suggestions? Send them along via email to our team: Kyle Daly ([email protected], @dalykyle), Nancy Scola ([email protected], @nancyscola), Steven Overly ([email protected], @stevenoverly), John Hendel ([email protected], @JohnHendel), Cristiano Lima ([email protected], @viaCristiano) and Alexandra S. Levine ([email protected], @Ali_Lev).