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Protego Weekly Update: June 6th, 2019

In this week’s Protego weekly update, we focus on new pressures building for governmental intervention to address tech companies.

It appears that the U.S. Government may be moving toward intervention to address tech companies and, in particular, the antitrust concerns that today’s behemoths raise.  Regulators have begun dividing their focus among the companies, with the Justice Department taking the lead on Apple and Google and the Federal Trade Commission focused on Amazon and Facebook.  In addition to that allocation of responsibilities within the executive branch, lawmakers in the House of Representatives intend to explore whether major tech companies have engaged in anti-competitive behavior.

This surging governmental scrutiny is occurring amidst widespread, continuing public debate about whether breaking up the tech companies would be beneficial.  For example, this week Eric Savitz made the case at Barron’s for why breaking up the companies could actually benefit investors, while Angela Chen argued in the MIT Technology Review that forcing the companies to share their data could be more useful than breaking up the companies themselves.

The response by the tech companies has been to gird for battle.  They have, in particular, muscled up on lobbyists, with Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google combining to spend $55 million last year on lobbying.  That figure is approximately double what those same four companies spent on lobbying efforts in 2016—and the numbers for this year are expected to grow even further.

Meanwhile, tech companies, in what appears partly an effort to fend off external regulation, continue to experiment with new ways to regulate themselves.  This week, YouTube announced that it would update its policies to ban “videos alleging that a group is superior in order to justify discrimination, segregation or exclusion.”  This policy update appears intended to reduce videos and channels on YouTube that push neo-Nazism, white supremacy, and other bigoted ideologies that have amassed huge viewerships and followings on the site.

At the same time, self-regulation by tech companies continues to face its own pressures and dilemmas.  Along those lines, YouTube also announced this week that it will be reconsidering its harassment policies, apparently in light of a vocal conflict between Vox’s Carlos Maza and the conservative commentator Stephen Crowder.  YouTube indicated that it will be consulting with outside experts and stakeholders in the course of considering updates to its policies on harassment.

Apple continues to try to distinguish itself from other tech companies, including by Apple’s recent introduction of “Sign In With Apple,” a single sign-on system for apps running on Apple’s operating system.  While Facebook and Google (including YouTube) have long utilized single sign-on systems to gather data on users, Apple has pledged that its new system would gather as little data about users as possible, and in particular would block access to users’ email addresses.  Apple’s promise to limit gathering data on those using Apple’s operating system is widely understood as a deliberate effort to show a more respectful approach to user data than the approach adopted by other leading tech companies.

Finally, on the subject of foreign election interference, cybersecurity firm Symantec released a study this week examining Russia’s disinformation campaign on Twitter during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.  Having scrutinized the output of Russia’s Internet Research Agency, Symantec concluded that Russia’s Twitter effort represented “a vast, coordinated campaign that was incredibly successful at pushing out and amplifying its messages.”  The report comes as discussion continues in the U.S. Congress about how well prepared the United States is to address foreign election interference ahead of the 2020 presidential election.