By JOHN HENDEL and ALEXANDRA S. LEVINE
Presented by Charter Communications
— Secretary Pete tries to steer a middle course: The Transportation secretary beamed in from Washington to remind the tech industry that government has its good side.
— Privacy barbs thrown: Who reads privacy policies, anyways? How do we fix them? And is the FTC up to the task of privacy enforcement? Current and former government panelists disagreed.
— Senators, meet CES: A Q&A with the Nevada senator bringing a record-breaking number of her colleagues West to talk tech.
GREETINGS FROM VEGAS! John Hendel and Alexandra Levine here. We’re thrilled to be in your inbox another couple of days for this special edition newsletter on all-things tech policy at CES. John’s reporting from on the ground in Vegas, and Alex remotely from California.
Have questions about what we’re seeing IRL? Tips on people we should chat with or other CES happenings? Send ’em over to [email protected] and [email protected], and follow @JohnHendel and @Ali_Lev on Twitter for more tea.
BUTTIGIEG TO CES: WASHINGTON CAN HELP YOU DISRUPT — The tech industry shouldn’t count out guidance from Washington when considering how to innovate, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told the CES crowd in a live-streamed appearance Thursday — a message at odds with much of the industry’s libertarian ethos.
But the federal government also needs to know when to “get out of the way,” the former presidential candidate said, in a departure from the sniping that typifies much of the current dialogue between D.C. and Silicon Valley.
And “innovation is not an end in itself,” Buttigieg said, instead saying technological advances should address needs such as climate change, the rights of workers and helping “America win the 21st century.”
Buttigieg, one of the most high-profile federal leaders to bow out of attending the conference in person, pointed to the host of tech complications his own department must navigate, including self-driving cars, drones, commercial space travel and cybersecurity dangers. “This is happening at a time when the tech sector is wrestling with its own challenges and coming to terms with its broader social impacts,” he noted.
But he suggested the U.S. is on the right course, emphasizing the many “smart city” advances taking place around the country and the promised benefits of the hundreds of billions of dollars tucked into last year’s bipartisan infrastructure law.
“Of course, innovation doesn’t just come from Silicon Valley, and it doesn’t always involve a shiny new piece of technology,” added the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. “Indeed, much of it comes from our cities and states.”
WHAT’S BEEN LOST IN THE NOISE OF THE PRIVACY DEBATE? So much of the hang-up on Congress passing a national privacy law has boiled down to two sticking points: “preemption” (whether a federal law should override state-level rules) and “private right of action” (whether individuals should have the power to sue companies over alleged privacy violations).
But a privacy panel at Thursday’s CES focused on a big piece of the debate that is often overlooked: the issue of notice and consent. Or in plain English: what you tell companies they can do with your data, how they ask for your permission in the first place and whether you even understand the terms you’re agreeing to.
“The traditional consent model sucks, right? Like, has anyone ever read the terms and conditions that you agreed to?” Asad Ramzanali, legislative director for Silicon Valley-area Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), asked an in-person audience. “No, of course not; you checked a box.” The audience exploded in laughter.
“There's disagreements on preemption, there's disagreements on private right… but questions like, ‘How do you deal with consent?’ — I don't think there's as much thinking on what is the appropriate middle ground,” Ramzanali said. And, he added, “there's a number of other provisions we have to work through that I don't think have gotten completely there on what the agreement looks like.”
— Is the Federal Trade Commission up to the task of addressing these issues? Depends on whom you ask. Eshoo and fellow Silicon Valley Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) are leading a bill, the Online Privacy Act, that would create a federal agency to enforce privacy laws.
Ramzanali argued that this type of digital agency would be key because tech companies pay little mind to the FTC when it comes to privacy. “The companies that we read about having privacy problems — they're not seeing it as the regulator,” he said, name-checking Google, Facebook and Amazon. “We need a separate agency with technologists, with expertise and the authorities to be able to regulate privacy appropriately.”
But former Republican FTC Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen, who was also on the panel, flatly rejected that notion. “As a practitioner in private practice, companies across the spectrum do consider the FTC their privacy regulator and they pay very, very close attention to what the agency is doing,” said Ohlhausen, now a partner at the law firm Baker Botts who is associated with Amazon and Facebook.
Ohlhausen also expressed some skepticism about whether Congress will pass a privacy law this year. If Congress can’t get the job done, “we end up with [an] FTC rule that can only do basically what the FTC can do now,” using its limited legal authority, “and a continuing patchwork of states,” she said.
INTERNET CONNECTIVITY BECOMES THE TALK OF THE DESERT — One big theme of the year’s CES centers on the importance of the internet, especially as the globe enters its third year of a global pandemic.
And contrary to what you may have read lately, one speaker said he saw smooth sailing for one wireless internet technology that’s been generating headaches in Washington.
— “5G is doing great,” Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon declared during an on-stage interview on Thursday afternoon. “We have now virtually every operator in the world investing, deploying, planning.” He promised that consumers would see more benefits soon, such as through “democratized” video, augmented reality and streaming games.
Policymakers, including those from Washington, were also quick to admit some structural problems that plague U.S. leadership — and telecom industry and Capitol Hill staffers pointed to the recent 5G airwaves spat between the Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission as a major concern (Buttigieg, whose department is the FAA’s parent agency, didn’t address the dispute in his remarks.)
— Just to refresh: The White House helped broker a deal this week to temporarily put off the launch of AT&T and Verizon’s 5G service in the so-called C-band airwaves due to concerns from the aviation industry about possible disruption to flight safety.
— Ramzanali, the staffer for California Rep. Eshoo, called the protracted spectrum fight “a failure of government to be able to coordinate at the right time,” saying the U.S. needs stronger leadership within the Commerce Department to help settle these federal disagreements earlier. John Godfrey, a senior vice president for Samsung Electronics America, complained that federal agencies unhappy about spectrum decisions “don’t come forward at the time when they’re supposed to” — namely, when the FCC is conducting its rulemakings.
— These connectivity challenges loom large, especially as the U.S. embarks on launching the infrastructure law’s $65 billion in broadband expansion — a topic that kept cropping up in CES sessions.
Expect further rancor as policymakers eye which technologies reap the dollars and what areas receive help. “We have to be providing oversight to make sure these funds actually go to unserved areas,” said Emily Hebein, a legislative assistant to Rep. Bob Latta (R-Ohio). “Frankly, the federal government doesn't have the best track record at allocating money for broadband.”
Latta and most other House Republicans voted against the infrastructure package, even though the proposal attracted robust bipartisan support in the Senate.
JACKY ROSEN WANTS TO BRING EVERY SENATOR TO CES — Even as this year’s tech trade show lost one policymaker after another amid the Omicron surge — from Biden Cabinet officials to an FCC commissioner to governors — organizers could still tout one milestone: CES 2022 would still host more senators than any other.
— The key player to thank: Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Nev.), a former computer programmer and software developer who has spent years enmeshed in the Las Vegas trade show. She will lead Friday’s session, which for now is set to include Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee.
“It was really important to me to try to keep it in person,” Rosen told John in a recent phone interview, stressing the health precautions in place. “When you actually see something, and you see the demonstration, you're able to touch it or experience it, it's a way different experience than watching something on television or through a Zoom or through a movie.”
— Rosen is especially proud of assembling this many senators and suggests even grander ambitions. “This is a record-breaking number of senators,” she said. “Every year, I hope to break that record, till we get to 100.”
Exposure to CES lends powerful context that can guide the more technical work of Capitol Hill’s committees and legislating, added Rosen, who expects chatter Friday on the China competition bill, recent broadband infrastructure investments and proposed measures to foster advanced manufacturing and more equitable STEM education.
— We’ll be watching Cantwell in particular given her gavel’s tech-agenda-setting power for Senate Democrats. Right now, she’s trying to advance some of the White House’s nominees to fill out the FCC and the FTC, two agencies poised to shape the Biden era’s 5G wireless and antitrust legacies. But she’s already eyeing next legislative steps.
Just before the holidays, the Senate Commerce chief named data privacy legislation as a top-of-mind priority for 2022 that she had hoped the panel would have drilled down on earlier (other measures like the China competition bill, Build Back Better and a surface transportation bill took precedence, she explains).
“We want to get to privacy,” she remarked then in a chat with John and other reporters, asserting that her desire to tackle that item ranks above even other big-ticket ambitions like autonomous vehicle legislation.
HEALTH TECH: ‘DON’T LUMP US IN WITH SOCIAL MEDIA COMPANIES’ — The chief medical officer of a prominent medical equipment company had a message for CES-goers and lawmakers alike: Health tech is not the same as consumer tech, so don’t punish us when it comes to regulation.
“Silicon Valley is one of the largest generators of wealth in the history of humankind, and a lot of it is built on the fact that data is extremely valuable,” said Carlos Nunez of ResMed, which has been a major provider of ventilators during the pandemic. But health care, though “data rich,” is fundamentally different. “We're not trying to sell banner ads.”
Appropriate use of data can improve outcomes for patients and help to fix broken parts of the health care system, Nunez said, and privacy laws need to account for that. “I may want to remain completely private in the face of a social media company, but I want to make sure that the personal, private data that's streaming from my medical device or my wearable to my doctor, to a company that's doing clinical research for the right reasons, is not cut off,” he said.
— Well, that’s awkward: Nunez also threw shade at CES exhibitors working on the metaverse, saying they’re creating a dystopian future where sci-fi becomes our reality and we’re reduced to the holographic avatars being displayed on the show floor at CES. “We are this far away from a world that looks like that,” he said.
“And what happens when you dive into that metaverse, you put on those VR/AR goggles?” he added. “Are you going to be bombarded with ads? Are they going to know who you are just by recognizing your face? And then your version of the metaverse is tailored to you in a good way, in a bad way, in a scary way?”
The following events will be livestreamed on Friday.
Noon ET — “Tech and Government: How Are They Stopping the Next Cyber-attack?” Panelists include former Rep. Will Hurd and speakers from Samsung and the office of Sen. Marsha Blackburn.
1:20 p.m. ET — “Artificial Intelligence: Expectations, Rules and Achievements,” featuring a speaker from European Parliament’s Liaison Office and others.
3:30 p.m. ET — A roundtable with women Senate leaders on this year’s top tech policy issues.