• Thu. Oct 1st, 2020

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The Technology 202: TikTok is hosting virtual briefings with policymakers as Trump ban looms

The push to open up its operations comes as TikTok is under fire from the Trump administration.

President Trump has signed an executive order to effectively ban TikTok because of national security concerns unless it’s sold to an American business. Administration officials have accused the platform, popular with teens, of sharing U.S. data with the Chinese government in a charge TikTok has repeatedly denied.

Notably, no one from the Trump administration has attended a session at a transparency center, according Michael Beckerman, TikTok’s head of U.S. public policy. However, he said  the company has engaged with administration officials in other venues

“The more that people are learning about TikTok, the more they like and trust it,” Beckerman told me in an interview. “So we just want to make sure that the doors are open and we answer any questions and bring actual transparency and accountability that’s been lacking in the industry.” 

The clock is running out on TikTok’s efforts to woo U.S. government officials. 

Beckerman tells me he’s “optimistic” TikTok will reach a deal with an American acquirer, even as China unveils new export restrictions that could make it more difficult for the business to sell to an American company. The company has received two bids, one from Microsoft and Walmart and a second from a group led by Oracle, according to my colleagues.  

The deadline for TikTok to reach a deal is swiftly approaching. And the Wall Street Journal reports the company is discussing an option with that would allow it to avoid a full sale of its U.S. operations. Even without such a move, the Journal reports the outcome would likely involve some sort of restructuring of the business.

The parties have until the week of Sept. 20 to reach a deal before the U.S. government would ban the app, per the terms of an Aug. 6 executive order. A subsequent executive order set a 90-day deadline until Nov. 12 for any acquisition to be completed. 

The virtual transparency center sessions are an attempt to address some of the national security concerns that have contributed to increased scrutiny of the app by the government. 

They begin with an introduction to TikTok’s U.S. executives, who largely previously worked at other large American tech companies, and in some instances, in government roles. The officials then brief participants on strategies to remove offending content and their stepped up  investments in data security. 

TikTok is also attempting to highlight its growing U.S. employee base as geopolitical tensions over its future mount. 

During the sessions, officials stress the company’s swift U.S. growth in 2020 as its popularity exploded during the pandemic. TikTok now has more than 1,500 U.S. employees, a headcount that has tripled this year. 

Officials also promise a major push in cybersecurity hires, including at least 100 more privacy and cybersecurity professionals by the end of 2020. TikTok has also vowed to add an additional 10,000 jobs in the United States over the next three years. Many of these jobs will be spread throughout the United States in states that don’t have major tech hubs, potentially in Michigan and Florida, Beckerman said. 

But these hiring efforts could be complicated by a looming ban. Depending on how the Trump administration would enforce such a ban if it occurs, experts say it would raise questions about the company’s ability to pay its American-based employees.

Beckerman, however, said recruiting has been “going well” despite the uncertainty over the company’s future. 

It also remains to be seen if TikTok would continue to expand at a rapid clip after being acquired by a larger tech giant. Beckerman declined to comment on potential buyers. 

“Security and safety are core to the platform, and none of that changes at all no matter what happens or who we’re involved with,” he told me. 

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Ireland issued a preliminary order requiring Facebook to stop sending user data to the United States. 

Its the first major step by European Union regulators to enforce a July ruling restricting how tech companies can transfer the personal information of Europeans to America, Sam Schechner and Emily Glazer at the Wall Street Journal report. The ruling could require Facebook to overhaul its data collection services or potentially halt service entirely to E.U. consumers. 

The order could set a significant precedent for many other big tech companies that operate in the bloc, including Google and Apple. Failure by Facebook to comply with the order would result in a fine of up to 4 percent of its annual revenue — or nearly $3 billion.

Facebook criticized the move as potentially devastating to the global economy.

“A lack of safe, secure and legal international data transfers would damage the economy and prevent the emergence of data-driven businesses from the E.U., just as we seek a recovery from Covid-19,” said Nick Clegg, Facebook’s top policy and communications executive. He confirmed that the order comes as part of a larger inquiry.

At the center of the conflict are E.U. lawmaker concerns over U.S. surveillance laws and lack of strong privacy protections. E.U. and U.S. officials started negotiations this summer to iron out a new data-sharing agreement.

Andy Jassy, Amazon’s cloud computing chief,  could eventually take over for Jeff Bezos. 

The likelihood of Jassy taking over the reins increased when Jeff Wilke, who ran Amazon’s retail business, announced plans to retire last month, my colleague Jay Greene reports. They were both seen to be groomed for the CEO position whenever the 56-year-old Amazon founder steps down. 

Jassy was instrumental in making Amazon a pioneer of the cloud-computing business – even though the company is still known for its work in e-commerce. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“Andy pushed to get Amazon into a new business where it hadn’t been,” said a former Amazon executive who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Jassy has been with the company since 1997, and he is known to embody Bezos’s personality and “high-risk, high-reward” thinking, Jay reports.

“Andy embodies the culture of Amazon,” said Matt McIlwain, managing director of Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle venture firm that invests in cloud start-ups. “He has consistently demonstrated the ability to be a builder.” 

“He has adopted a lot of Jeff’s personality,” said a former executive, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly about previous colleagues. “He’s more of a creative ideas person, rather than an operations person.”

But it’s unlikely that Bezos will retire any time soon, Jay reports. The coronavirus would be a fraught time for the chief executive to leave, and if Microsoft serves as an example, it could take years for the company to form an identity separate from its founder.

The Portland, Ore., City Council voted to ban city and private use of facial recognition technology.

Other cities including Boston, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have placed bans on government use of the controversial technology, but the Portland ordinances also block private companies from scanning faces in public. The ordinances do not prevent personal use of the technology, such users using the tech to open their phones.

The bans will take effect in January 2021.

Advocates and researchers have shown that the technology is less accurate when used on non-White faces, and they have warned that it could lead to discrimination in policing. 

Amazon announced earlier this summer that it would put a one-year moratorium on sales of facial recognition technology to police, and Microsoft said it would pause it entirely while Congress reviews possible regulation. IBM said it would stop selling general facial recognition entirely.

WeChat users can’t challenge Trump’s ban, the government argues.

“To hold otherwise would allow a group of social media users to substitute their subjective judgment” for that of the president “merely because they are unable to use an app that they prefer,” the government said Wednesday in a filing in San Francisco federal court, Edvard Pettersson at Bloomberg News reports. 

U.S. WeChat Users Alliance, a nonprofit organization established to fight the executive order that says it is not affiliated with WeChat’s parent company Tencent, and several other plaintiffs filed a lawsuit last month against  Trump nd the commerce secretary. The lawsuit claims the executive order was unconstitutional and the Trump administration did not provide sufficient evidence to support claims WeChat is a national security threat. 

The government refuted the argument the president has to provide more evidence for the decision, referring to a Supreme Court decision from two years ago upholding Trump’s travel ban for visitors from a group of Muslim countries.

The Commerce Department is set to say which transactions with WeChat will be banned by Sept. 20. TikTok has filed a similar lawsuit but said it would wait for the final order before asking for a court to block it.

Rant and rave

Residents in San Francisco woke up to an apocalyptic scene as recent wildfires covered the area in ash and smoke. The San Francisco Chronicles Jessica Christian:

Twitter users compared the shocking scene to one out of the science fiction film “Blade Runner 2049.”

Perhaps more dystopian was that iPhone automatically filtered out the smog. Bloomberg Newss Sarah Frier:

But the apocalypse hasnt changed everything. Electronic Frontier Foundations Eva Galperin: 

Trump tracker

A former senior DHS official alleges he was ordered to stop providing intelligence on Russian election interference.

Wolf, a Trump loyalist who has been in the role nearly a year, said the intelligence “made the President look bad,” Murphy alleged in a whistleblower complaint filed Tuesday with the DHS inspector general.

On July 8, Wolf told Murphy to hold an intelligence notification regarding Russian disinformation because it could hurt the presidents insistence that Russian interference was a hoax by opponents. Two months before, Wolf told Murphy to stop producing intelligence assessments on Russia and focus on China and Iran.

Murphy said he would not comply with the instructions, which he believed would “put the country in substantial and specific danger,” according to the complaint.

The White House and the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to requests for comment. 

The House Intelligence Committee has asked Murphy to testify this month.

Workforce report

Former NSA chief Keith Alexander is joining Amazon’s board.

Alexander, who is now co-chief executive of IronNet Cybersecurity, also served as commander of the U.S. Cyber Command. He will serve on a four-member audit committee.

Alexander was involved in the NSAs broad data collection program revealed in the Edward Snowden leaks, Devin Coldewey at TechCrunch reports. The Snowden leaks led to a change in the way tech companies addressed transparency and user privacy policies.

(Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Alexander also brings defense contracting experience as the tech giant continues to challenge a Pentagon decision to award Microsoft a lucrative cloud-computing contract. The company alleges that President Trumps animosity toward Amazon influenced the decision. (Amazon told TechCrunch it will continue to follow rules for conflicts of interest in government contracts.)

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Daybook

  • The House Oversight and Reform Committee will hold a hearing on “Providing the Census Bureau with the Time to Produce a Complete and Accurate Census” today at 11 a.m.
  • European Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders will participate in a Brookings virtual panel discussion on advancing the transatlantic dialogue on data privacy, security, artificial intelligence and consumer protection today at 10 a.m.
  • The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division and the Federal Trade Commission will co-host the 19th annual International Competition Network (ICN) Conference online from Sept. 14-17.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing, “Stacking the Tech: Has Google harmed competition in online advertising?” Sept. 15 at 2:30 p.m.
  • Facebook Connect will take place virtually on Sept. 16.
  • The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing to examine threats to U.S. intellectual property, focusing on cyberattacks and counterfeits during the coronavirus pandemic on Sept. 23 at 2:30 p.m.

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