The Technology 202: Biden could face a deadlocked Federal Communications Commission

The future balance of the agency largely hinges on a Republican push to confirm Trump’s nominee

Trump has tapped Nathan Simington, a Commerce Department aide who was very involved with the president’s efforts to crack down on tech companies to address alleged anti-conservative bias on social media. Republicans are racing against the clock to confirm Simington in a lame-duck congressional session in which there are many competing priorities. The Senate Commerce Committee will consider Simington’s nomination during a session tomorrow morning, according to the committee’s website. 

If confirmed to the five-person commission, Simington would join FCC commissioners Brendan Carr (R), Jessica Rosenworcel (D) and Geoffrey Starks (D). If Republicans retain control of the Senate, it could be difficult for Biden to nominate a tie-breaking Democratic commissioner to fill the fifth slot.

But expect major resistance from Democrats, who have been critical of Republicans’ efforts to use regulatory threats to crack down on the tech industry for allegedly censoring conservatives. Simington is poised to replace Michael O’Reilly, a Republican commissioner whose nomination Trump revoked after he questioned the FCC’s authority to make rules for speech on social media. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who has been particularly active on tech issues, has threatened to put a hold on Simington’s nomination unless he agrees to recuse himself from decisions related to Trump’s executive order targeting Section 230, a decades old law shielding tech companies from lawsuits for content moderation decisions. Simington played a key role in shaping the directive. 

The nomination is facing new controversy after Politico reported Simington reached out to Fox News in an attempt at “engaging” host Laura Ingraham to support Trump’s attacks on Big Tech and efforts to overhaul Section 230. 

Blumenthal has demanded an explanation of these actions. “This email shows that Mr. Simington was an active and eager soldier in President Trump’s attempted assault on the First Amendment,” he said in a statement to Politico. “Mr. Simington was willing to bully the very agency he’s been nominated to join in order to do the electoral bidding of the Republican party on the taxpayer dime.”

If Republicans succeed in pushing Simington through, it could significantly slow down Biden’s work on key tech issues. 

Biden has promised his administration’s FCC would take a starkly different approach from the agency under Pai’s leadership. Pai’s tenure will be remembered for his light-touch approach and his successful effort to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules. 

Biden has said he will restore net neutrality, which requires companies such as AT&T and Comcast to treat all Internet traffic equally. That move is certain to face resistance from Republicans. 

FCC gridlock could have particularly challenging consequences for a Biden administration during the pandemic, as the Internet is more essential than ever. 

There’s increasing pressure from congressional Democrats to address the digital divide, especially as the shift to remote education and work highlights the stark costs of limited Internet access. Biden has said expanding such access is a priority of his infrastructure plan, which seeks to create new jobs in response to the pandemic. His “Build Back Better” plan aims to expand broadband to every American. The FCC would inevitably play an essential role in any public effort to reach that ambitious goal.

“Just like rural electrification several generations ago, universal broadband is long overdue and critical to broadly shared economic success,” Biden wrote on his website. 

The Biden transition team has not yet said who it intends to tap to lead the agency. Some Democrats in Congress have expressed support for Rosenworcel to take the chair. She’s been a prominent advocate for initiatives to close the digital divide, especially during the pandemic. 

“Jessica Rosenworcel would make an excellent FCC Chair,” Blumenthal said in a statement. “She is a devoted public servant with a proven track record as a progressive voice on net neutrality, competition, and consumer protections against robocalls.”

Biden may face an uphill battle in pushing through Democrats’ tech priorities. 

The battle over the FCC’s future is indicative of the kind of gridlock Biden can expect on many fronts if Republicans are successful in maintaining control of Congress. 

It’s unlikely Biden would be able to push through some of the Democrats’ proposals to overhaul antitrust laws, for instance. Tech issues, such as comprehensive national privacy legislation, could fall victim to the same partisan fault lines that have prevented legislative action for years. 

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Researchers at A.I. lab DeepMind say their findings could accelerate the development of new medicines. 

The Alphabet-owned company developed a computer system that can help identify the precise shape of a protein in potentially just hours compared to traditional scientific methods, which take years or decades, Cade Metz at the New York Times reports. Computer scientists have been trying to build a system like this for more than 50 years.

The technology could help drugmakers and researchers more quickly identify vaccines for new pandemics such as the novel coronavirus. It could also help predict some problems that might arise from clinical trials. 

“We could start screening every compound that is licensed for use in humans,” said Andrei Lupas, director of the department of protein evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Germany, who worked with the technology. “We could face the next pandemic with the drugs we already have.”

The breakthrough could also give the medical community a better understanding of genetic diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

DeepMind’s chief executive Demis Hassabis said the company probably would publish its findings next year and is exploring ways to share the technology with other researchers. 

Facebook plans to buy a customer service start-up as it eyes expanding its e-commerce business.

The company has been valued between $710 million and $1 billion. Kustomer already offers some aspects of its customer service platform, which includes chatbots, to Facebook Messenger users. It began integrating with Facebook’s Instagram in October. 

Facebook’s push into “social commerce” coincides with growing regulatory scrutiny over the company’s acquisitions of competitors and industry dominance.

State and federal antitrust regulators are planning to bring charges against Facebook as soon as this month that will challenge its acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp, Tony has reported. 

The Supreme Court may be ready to rein in the nation’s main anti-hacking law.

The high court heard arguments for the first time yesterday in a case that challenges the broadest interpretations of that law, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which have left cybersecurity pros fearing jail time for doing basic Internet detective work, Joseph Marks reports. The law dates to 1986 and has bedeviled cybersecurity researchers almost since the birth of the Internet.  

That case focuses on a former Georgia police officer, Nathan Van Buren, who was convicted under the law in 2017 after he sold information from a police database to an acquaintance for $6,000. The information focused on helping the acquaintance figure out whether a local stripper was actually an undercover cop.  

The justices expressed severe concerns about the law’s ambiguity during the 80-minute hearing, but it’s not clear whether they’re ready to rein it in. 

Critics say the broad interpretation of the law can be read to make it a federal crime whenever someone breaks a website’s terms of service and produces a chilling effect for cybersecurity researchers who routinely skirt websites’ strict terms of service when they investigate them for bugs that cyber criminals could exploit. 

“Right now, there’s just a lot of uncertainty as to what’s illegal,” Orin Kerr, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley School of Law who focuses on computer crimes, told me. “So we need some clarity about what this law means.” 

Rant and rave

Quibi got one last hurrah as it finally (?) shuts down today:

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Mark Zuckerberg praised Biden’s selection for chief of staff. 

The Facebook chief executive said he was “personally encouraged” by the president-elect’s selection of Ron Klain, who handled the Ebola outbreak for the Obama administration. Zuckerberg, who has generally steered clear of commenting on the election of Biden, made the remark in a live interview with Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

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  • The Senate Commerce Committee will meet to discuss the nomination of Nathan Simington to the Federal Communications Commission Wednesday at 10 a.m.
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