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Tech allies slam FCC's broadside against web platforms

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai earlier this year. Photo: Robin Groulx / Axios

The tech industry and its liberal allies pushed back Tuesday on Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's contention that they're a greater threat to free speech online than internet providers like Comcast and Verizon that are subject to the net neutrality rules he's trying to repeal.

Why it matters: Pai is trying to close the deal on a policy reversal that is supported by established telecom companies under the banner of Trump-era conservative populism. Jabbing Silicon Valley for supporting the net neutrality rules, while also removing some content from their own platforms, is exactly what some on the right want to hear.

Some in the Trump wing ate it up. "BOOM: FCC Chairman Ajit Pai specifically calls out Twitter censorship," tweeted Jack Posobiec, the right-wing social media personality who gained prominence pushing the false "Pizzagate" conspiracy theory, adding that now "it makes sense why Twitter, Facebook, Google, Amzazon [sic] etc all want net neutrality so bad."

One supporter of the current rules cast doubt on whether other conservatives would agree. "I don't know if rural Trump voters really love their broadband providers," said Gigi Sohn, a former FCC aide for former Chairman Tom Wheeler who helped shape the net neutrality rules. "They probably don't."

What they're saying:

  • "Websites and apps operate in a competitive environment with low barriers to entry where choice and competition are a click away," said Noah Theran, a spokesperson for the Internet Association, which represents Google, Facebook and Twitter. "This stands in stark contrast to ISPs, where more than 60 percent of Americans — and 87 percent of rural Americans — have no choice in high speed broadband provider. Strong, enforceable net neutrality rules are essential to protect consumers and preserve robust competition online."
  • Supporters of the rules said Pai was trying to distract from the substance of the debate. "This has been an argument that the ISPs have been pushing for a long time in this debate as a way to distract from the core issue here, which is whatever you think of the consolidation of power within the edge provider community it's still not a terminating access monopoly like ISPs have," said Evan Engstrom, the head of startup advocacy group Engine.
  • A Twitter spokesperson resisted the idea that it had discriminated against conservative Rep. Marsha Blackburn when it took down an ad because it contained a graphic comment on her opposition to abortion rights — an incident cited by Pai. The spokesperson said that because "advertisements are served to users who do not necessarily follow an account, we therefore have higher standards for their content."
  • "But… that's not what a free and open internet means? Twitter isn't an ISP," tweeted Andrew Losowsky, the head of Mozilla's Coral Project.
  • Google and Facebook declined to comment.

Yes, but: One major tech investor that still supports the net neutrality rules told Axios that Pai's concerns about the power of major web platforms was also valid.

Be smart: Lines between the far left and the far right on the issue of corporate power are blurring as fast as the lines between the pipes that carry content on the internet and the websites that host it.

Steve LeVine 6 hours ago
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Self-driving lab head urges freeze after "nightmare" fatality

Uber self-driving car in Pittsburgh. Photo: Jeff Swensen / Getty

Carmakers and technology companies should freeze their race to field autonomous vehicles because "clearly the technology is not where it needs to be," said Raj Rajkumar, head of Carnegie Mellon University's leading self-driving laboratory.

What he said: Speaking a few hours after a self-driven vehicle ran over and killed a pedestrian in Arizona, Rajkumar said, "This isn't like a bug with your phone. People can get killed. Companies need to take a deep breath. The technology is not there yet. We need to keep people in the loop."

David McCabe 3 hours ago
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Lawyers spar over evidence during kickoff of AT&T vs DOJ trial

Photo: Richard Levine/Corbis via Getty Images

The court battle over AT&T’s $85 billion acquisition of Time Warner got off to a contentious start Monday as lawyers fought over what evidence they could bring into court.

Why it matters: Key themes are already emerging after the first day of AT&T's trial fight against DoJ. For starters, Judge Richard Leon wants to hear from AT&T's competitors, and the government wants to show the hypocrisy of the telecom giant's arguments.

What they’re saying: Justice Department attorney Eric Welsh argued against an attempt by AT&T to keep out of the trial earlier statements from subsidiary DirecTV opposing the Comcast-NBCU merger, arguing they were related to a different case.

  • This is key to the DoJ's case: It wants to show AT&T has opposed similarly structured deals that saw a telecom company buying a media firm.
  • Judge Richard J. Leon indicated he might be willing to treat it only as a statement from DirecTV, not AT&T. If AT&T is successful at getting DirecTV removed as a defendant in the case, it would be a blow to the government.
  • Welsh pushed back that the “same people” involved in earlier deals would be making decisions about the industry going forward.

Leon expressed interest in another main thread of the case: whether a telecom provider like AT&T would be competing with Silicon Valley powerhouses like Google or Facebook. He indicated he wants to hear more from a Google employee who was deposed by the DoJ about the importance of Time Warner content to its YouTube TV streaming service.

The judge also made it clear he was worried about witnesses from AT&T's competitors being allowed to testify in secret and AT&T keeping certain documents confidential. He said weighing a "case of this magnitude" in closed court isn't consistent with the premise of a trial.

  • Some of AT&T's competitors sent lawyers to Monday’s hearing. One attempted to address Leon at the end of the day and was sharply rebuked. “Sir, when I talk, you stop,” Leon told the man, who said he represented a Sony subsidiary.

What’s next: There will be more evidentiary arguments on Tuesday. Opening arguments are scheduled for Wednesday and, according to AT&T lawyer Daniel Petrocelli, will be attended by the chief executives of both AT&T and Time Warner.