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May 12, 2022

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Today's newsletter is 1,198 words, a 4-minute read.

1 big thing: Lina Khan's to-do list on Big Tech

A photo illustration of FTC chair Lina Khan with a gavel and the Capitol in the background
Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: An Rong Xu/Washington Post via Getty Images

Federal Trade Commission chair Lina Khan has a chance to work her way down her Big Tech to-do list, nearly a year into her tenure, now that she has a Democratic majority in hand, Axios' Ashley Gold and Margaret Harding McGill report.

Driving the news: The Senate voted 51-50 Wednesday afternoon — with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking a tie — to confirm privacy expert Alvaro Bedoya to the FTC.

The big picture: Progressives last year cheered President Biden's appointment of Khan, a prominent critic of Amazon's market power, to lead the agency — but her ability to enact sweeping changes or enforcement actions has been limited so far.

The Democrats' majority at the five-person agency now opens the door for Khan's agenda, expected to include:

New privacy and competition rules: Biden called on the FTC to craft rules on data and surveillance, as well as rules barring unfair methods of competition on internet marketplaces, as part of a wide-ranging executive order on competition last summer.

  • Khan will now have the votes to propose new rules around unfair competition practices, children's privacy, consumer privacy, and the use of non-compete contracts, along with the use of data and surveillance.

Aggressive enforcement on deals: The same executive order said the FTC has the power to challenge prior mergers, something the FTC itself highlighted when Amazon closed its deal with MGM after running out the clock on the agency's review.

  • Agency watchers tell Axios Khan may wait to file a larger case against Amazon that goes beyond its MGM purchase.
  • "[Khan] was put in charge of the agency with a strong bipartisan majority to address the market power problems deriving from Big Tech. Core to those problems are their ability to leverage their power into markets through acquisitions," Sarah Miller, executive director of the American Economic Liberties Project, told Axios.

More stringent guidelines on mergers: The administration called on the FTC to scrutinize mergers and acquisitions by dominant internet platforms, especially when buying smaller rivals.

What they're saying: Bedoya's arrival means "the urgent work of reining in the unchecked power of increasingly concentrated industries can finally move forward at the FTC," Alex Harman, ​director of government affairs for competition policy at the Economic Security Project, the anti-monopoly nonprofit founded by former Meta co-founder Chris Hughes, told Axios.

The other side: Critics of Khan's FTC, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said her new Democratic majority marks the end of bipartisanship at the agency.

Between the lines: Democratic commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Bedoya will have considerable leverage over the agency's work as Khan will need their support to push through her agenda.

Yes, but: Khan will also need the support of FTC staff, who carry out the work of writing rules and guidelines. A recent survey showed low trust in senior leaders among FTC employees, and Politico reported tensions between FTC leadership and longtime staffers.

2. Google adopts more inclusive skin tone model

An image of a Black woman seen next to the 10 point Monk Skin Tone Scale
Screenshot: Google

Google announced Wednesday that it is making use of a more inclusive data model as part of its effort to make its services work equally well across a wide range of human skin tones.

Why it matters: Google is the front door to the internet, and every step it takes towards more equitable products affects billions of people.

Details: Google says it has begun using the Monk Skin Tone Scale, developed by Harvard professor Ellis Monk, as a guide to evaluate its products. Monk's scale is comprised of 10 tones, compared to the more widely used Fitzpatrick model, which only uses six.

  • "It's much more representative," said Tulsee Doshi, head of product on Google's responsible AI and product inclusion team.
  • The company has started using the scale within its own products. Among the first instances are in search, where it is being used as an option to filter makeup options, as well as for new, more inclusive filters.

The big picture: Developing equitable technology means counteracting decades of discrimination while also taking steps to ensure that human bias doesn't become automated, entrenched and, ultimately codified through algorithms.

  • A great deal of basic technology, including much of photography, was designed with white users in mind.
  • Snapchat's inclusive camera effort, first detailed by Axios, aims to address the legacy of film cameras whose chemical processes were optimized for properly developing images with lighter skin tones, a legacy that continued into the digital era.
  • With the Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro smartphones, released last year, Google has been heavily touting its Real Tone feature, aimed at better capturing darker skin tones.

Yes, but: Tech's bias problems go far beyond skin tone. Doshi acknowledges that there is a lack of diversity of images on the internet. "The web itself has had a history of bias in terms of who we take photos of, who we publish," Doshi said.

Separately: Google used its I/O conference to announce a new Pixel phone and noise-cancelling Pixel Buds as well as to preview its first Pixel smartwatch. Read our full recap of the key announcements.

3. Appeals court allows Texas social media law

A controversial Texas law aimed at punishing social media companies if they "censor" users will go into effect for now, a three-person panel of federal appeals court judges ruled on Wednesday, Axios' Shawna Chen reports.

Why it matters: The move, which stays a lower court order that temporarily blocked the law, is a win for Republicans who say social media companies have waged a campaign to silence conservative ideas and beliefs.

Details: The law allows users to sue a social media company if they are blocked from posting or have their posts removed, which civil liberties experts and tech advocates argue would force companies to let problematic speech such as hate and misinformation stay up on their platforms, Protocol reports.

Catch up quick: The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) and NetChoice filed suit against Texas shortly after the law was enacted, calling it unconstitutional.

  • A lower court judge ruled in December that the law "prohibits virtually all content moderation, the very tool that social media platforms employ to make their platforms safe, useful, and enjoyable for users."
  • After the law was blocked, a spokesperson for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) told the Austin American-Statesman that "[a]lowing biased social media companies to cancel conservative speech is hostile to the free speech foundation America was built on."

4. Take note

On Tap

  • Google I/O continues online and, for some, at Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.

Trading Places

  • Amazon has shifted a high-ranking AWS executive to an advisory role amid allegations of gender discrimination, Business Insider reports.

ICYMI

  • Citing security concerns, Facebook parent Meta said Wednesday that it withdrew an earlier request for policy guidance from the independent Oversight Board. The company had sought the board's input on content moderation decisions related to Russia's war in Ukraine. (Axios)
  • The SEC is reportedly investigating Elon Musk's late disclosure of his 9.2% stake in Twitter last month. (Wall Street Journal)

5. After you Login

The new Lego version of Optimus Prime, with the Transformer shown in both robot and truck form.
Image: Lego Group

Lego has announced its collaboration with Hasbro on a brick version of Optimus Prime that can be transformed without disassembly. The 1,508-piece set goes on sale June 1 for $169.