Throughout her 30 years in telecommunications and technology policy, Gigi Sohn has worn many hats—a telecom lawyer, a progressive advocate, a top aide at the Federal Communications Commission, an academic. But if there’s one thread uniting the career of a woman widely viewed as the godmother of progressive tech policy in Washington, it’s her ability to bridge the vast chasms between industry, the advocacy community, and the federal government. “I spend a lot of time building bridges between industry and public interests—and also between the public-interest groups themselves,” Sohn said.
Gov Gavin Newsom (D-CA) may have thought he was throwing privacy advocates a bone when he proposed the creation of a “data dividend” during his state of the state address. The notion that Facebook, Google, and other tech platforms should return a portion of the tremendous wealth that they’ve accumulated through the exploitation of their users’ personal data is a popular one.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune said he’s open to funneling a potential tranche of broadband infrastructure funding through the Federal Communications Commission’s Universal Service Fund. “I think the USF could be a way to figure out how we channel and move money in the right direction — get the most lead on the targets, so to speak, to get results,” Thune said following a hearing on how to best allocate funds under a possible infrastructure bill.
On Feb 28, President Donald Trump said he would ask Congress for a $1 trillion infrastructure package, but he did not mention broadband investment. Chairman Thune said that while he believes broadband will ultimately be included in the White House package, “it’s hard to say exactly what their plan might entail.”
Acting Federal Trade Commission Chairman Maureen Ohlhausen said that President Donald Trump’s immigration order will not in any way affect the FTC’s enforcement of the Privacy Shield, a commercial data-transfer agreement negotiated by the United States and the European Union. “We will continue to enforce the Privacy Shield protections, and we hope we will move ahead as planned,” the Republican FTC chief said. “In my opinion, nothing has changed.”
Data protection officials across the EU are reportedly worried that the White House immigration order — or its potential follow-ups — could undermine the 2016 EU-U.S. Privacy Shield, a hard-won agreement safeguarding EU residents’ personal data that is collected and stored by US companies. The pact allows for the free flow of consumer information between US and EU borders, and its weakening could negatively affect economic ties.
Sen Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced a sweeping tech-focused agenda that aims to bolster the H-1B visa program, prevent forum-shopping by patent trolls and improve data privacy both at home and abroad. In a speech on Capitol Hill, the Utah Republican addressed the tech community’s concerns about President Donald Trump potentially issuing an executive order that could weaken the H-1B visa program, which many tech employers say they rely on to fill high-skilled positions. Sen Hatch, who’s chairman of the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, said it was important for tech leaders to do their part in persuading Trump not to weaken the foreign-worker program, and that includes “not provoking the White House unnecessarily.” He reiterated his close relationship with Trump, and stressed his ability to act as a “bridge” between Silicon Valley and the administration when it comes to the H-1B program and other industry issues. “I know he trusts me,” Sen Hatch said, referring to President Trump. “Then again, I’m not sure he trusts anybody … but I think he does trust me. He knows I’m not going to go around what he’d like to do.”
James Baker, the top lawyer at the Federal Bureau of Investigation, recommended that Congress take a more active role in legislating on US law enforcement’s limited access to encrypted data tied to a criminal investigation. “We don’t want this debate driven by some kind of catastrophe down the road,” Baker said. Baker, the FBI’s general counsel, appeared at an event to discuss a new encryption report issued by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The American people, through their elected representatives, have to make a value determination” regarding encryption, he said. “The world is moving forward, and doing nothing is an action, and will result in a particular state of affairs.” “I’m not sure that a commission is going to be able to come up with a kind of granular solution, [a] highly technical solution, promptly, that we can put in place to deal with this,” Baker said.
Sen Mike Rounds (R-SD), chairman of the recently created Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Cybersecurity, views cyberspace like any other battleground. “Cyberwar is more than simply stealing emails,” Chairman Rounds said. “Cyberwar is where you’re doing damage that, if it was done using a different weapon — a kinetic weapon, a bomb or a missile — everyone would say, ‘Look, you just damaged our infrastructure. You just messed up the New York Stock Exchange. You just blew up a dam.’”
In Chairman Rounds’ view, there is little difference between a missile attack on key US targets and a cyberattack that accomplishes the same kind of destruction. Chairman Rounds said the cybersecurity panel’s first task will be to help the Defense Department craft guidelines for responding to cyberattacks — particularly those perpetrated by hostile states — that mirror the way the Pentagon responds to bombs and bullets.
Sen Steve Daines (R-MT) introduced bipartisan legislation (S 228) that would exempt small internet service providers from transparency requirements under the Federal Communications Commission’s Open Internet order. The Republican-led FCC has already said it won’t enforce the requirements for small ISPs, and suggested that it would revisit the rules as part of a broader re-examination of the 2015 Open Internet order. But providers want the exemption codified into law. The lack of enforcement could give senators time to work out the bill’s details with Democrats. As of Jan 24, Sen Joe Manchin (D-WV) was the only Democratic co-sponsor. The Senate Commerce Committee is not scheduled to vote on the measure, according to an aide to Sen Daines. S 228, would grant broadband providers with fewer than 250,000 subscribers a five-year exemption from FCC requirements that they provide enhanced technical and fee data to consumers. Smaller ISPs say the cost of collecting that data is onerous and would cut disproportionately into their business. The House passed a similar bill by voice vote earlier in January.
The House passed two bills on unanimous voice votes Jan 10 — one that would waive certain transparency requirements for small internet service providers and one that encourages data efficiency in the federal government. The Small Business Broadband Deployment Act (HR 288), would exempt ISPs with fewer than 250,000 subscribers from transparency requirements that were mandated under the Federal Communications Commission’s controversial Open Internet order. An identical bill passed the House in March before it stalled in the Senate. Both measures were introduced by House Commerce Committee Chairman Greg Walden (R-OR). The Federal Communications Commission had a temporary exemption for ISPs with fewer than 100,000 subscribers, but it expired in December after commissioners failed to agree on an acceptable threshold for the waiver. The requirements won’t take effect until Jan. 17 due to a delay at the Office of Management and Budget. Republican FCC commissioners have promised small providers that the agency won’t enforce the requirements once they take over the FCC on Jan. 20.
The House also passed the Energy Efficient Government Technology Act (HR 306). Sponsored by Rep Anna Eshoo (D-CA), it would require federal data centers to employ energy efficient technologies. That bill also passed the House in March but was not taken up by the Senate. In a statement, Chairman Walden said he hopes the Senate will “expeditiously” act on these bills.
As Republicans prepare to take over the Federal Communications Commission in 2017, don’t expect them to make a quick, clean break with the agency’s 2015 network neutrality rule. Two commission officials said that procedural hurdles and related programs may make scrapping the Open Internet order more complicated than GOP rhetoric suggests. The commission is still required to issue a proposed rule, which typically takes months to craft, and the comment period spans about two months.
Political precedent will weigh in. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai will likely be acting chairman starting on Jan 20, and he will have to balance any desire to move quickly on Title II with some deference to the administration’s pick for chairman. That nomination could take months to finalize. Perhaps most importantly, the two commission officials separately noted that a rule to roll back net neutrality could face scrutiny in the courts. A federal appeals court upheld the net neutrality rule in June, and the decision relied on evidence of how the broadband market changed over the previous 10 years, making it difficult for Republicans to argue for a rollback now.