Bits: Farhad’s and Cecilia’s Week in Tech: Tech Policy, Too, Is Undergoing a Sea Change


Cecilia: Excited to talk about tech policy? Music to my ears.

So much is happening, and in a normal news cycle, the rollback of Obama-era tech policies would get a lot more attention. But make no mistake, the changes coming in privacy, net neutrality and potentially many more tech regulations will be profound. Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, promised the “deconstruction of the administrative state,” and right away we’ve begun to see that happen.

Farhad: So we’ll get to all that in a second. But first, let’s go over the news of the week.

WikiLeaks released a huge cache of documents that purport to show the tools that the C.I.A. uses to break into smartphones, computers and even smart TVs. Other than embarrassing the United States government, the leak has fed into more conspiracy theories about Russia (Sean Hannity was having a ball this week), and they’ve given people some tips for how to protect themselves from governmental spying. If you want to safeguard your own devices, read our colleague Brian Chen’s handy guide.

But the best take I read on the leak came from the social media scholar Zeynep Tufecki, who pointed out that WikiLeaks overhyped this cache. The documents actually show that the C.I.A. finds encrypted communications apps like Signal and WhatsApp very difficult to break into.

Cecilia: And it was amazing to see the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange offer help to tech companies like Apple and Google by sharing the leaked computer code so they could fix the flaws described in the C.I.A. documents. How awkward would that be? Remember, relations are still pretty tense between tech and law enforcement on the issue of encryption, which is certainly going to come up again.

Farhad: This week, there was also another attempt by Facebook to copy Snapchat. This time it was Messenger’s turn. Facebook’s messaging app rolled out a new feature that allows people to create Snapchat-like slide shows — known in the Snapchat world as Stories — on the service. Facebook calls it Messenger Day.

I don’t know about this. Messenger used to be a simple beloved chat app. Now it’s a mess of different things. I don’t get it, honestly.

Cecilia: I left Messenger when it became a separate app. If you make me jump through even one extra hoop, I’m out.

Farhad: Oh man, you’d never be able to work with Mike.

Google also had a huge conference to show off its cloud computing services. A lot of these are too boring and business-y to mention here, but there was one thing that caught my eye: Google Hangouts is being transformed into something more like Slack, the group-messaging app that has taken businesses by storm. I’m happy about this because Google seemed to have forgotten about working on Hangouts these last few years. An overhaul is way overdue.

Cecilia: Zzz. You kinda lost me at cloud conference. But seriously, I’m pumped about any improvements to Hangouts. Essential reporting tool.

Tech’s biggest boosters of space exploration, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, were in Washington this week. Musk came for his fifth visit to Team Trump since the election to talk about ways to improve the nation’s infrastructure. One idea he mentioned was building tunnels under cities.

Musk’s companies — SpaceX, Tesla and SolarCity — have a lot at stake with any changes that could occur in government contracting and energy tax breaks and subsidies. It’s been fascinating to watch how he’s basically dodged criticism for advising the president. Why is Musk Teflon while Uber’s chief executive, Travis Kalanick, was pressured a few weeks ago by anti-Trump employees and customers to resign from the president’s advisory council?

Bezos was also here this week to announce the first paying customer for Blue Origin, his rocket company. A day later, he announced another customer for Blue Origin rockets. Blue Origin probably won’t be profitable for a long time, but the company is now officially more than just a billionaire hobby horse.

Farhad: Now to tech and Trump. Under the new president we have a new F.C.C. commissioner, possibly a different standard for antitrust review on big mergers, and maybe lots of money for infrastructure that might seep into the tech economy. Can you go over the biggest tech policy changes we’re expecting under Trump?

Cecilia: Ajit Pai, Trump’s pick to head the F.C.C., has quickly repealed rules created during the Obama administration. The first big real target will be broadband privacy.

Mr. Pai started by shelving new data security rules that were supposed to go into effect this month. He is also targeting broader broadband privacy rules approved last fall that would have forced AT&T and Comcast to ask for a consumer’s permission to track browsing and app activity. If he doesn’t scrap those rules first, Congress will. Mr. Pai’s Republican allies, Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona and Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, are in the process of rescinding the F.C.C. privacy rules through the Congressional Review Act, which is basically a tactic used by Congress to remove recently adopted agency rules.

Farhad: Wait, wait, what would these rules have done? From what I’ve read, they would have just stopped your broadband company from tracking you unless they asked permission. That seems … good?

Cecilia: Yep, and that “opt-in” mandate underlies potential fortunes for advertisers. If given the explicit choice of getting tracked online, many consumers would say no. Pai has an interesting argument against the broadband rules that says a lot about his view of the tech industry. He says broadband providers shouldn’t have heavy-handed privacy rules when Google and Facebook don’t. Privacy violations by telecom and tech companies should be policed by the Federal Trade Commission, he argues.

Farhad: Huh. O.K., what’s next?

Cecilia: The next big target will be net neutrality, which ensures equal access to all content online. Pai wants a diluted version of the rules put in place by Tom Wheeler, his predecessor. He’s going to permit zero-rating and could also be flexible on things like sponsored data, which is when a company like AT&T gives unlimited streaming of DirecTV channels for its mobile customers. That offering would make it much harder for a streaming company like Vimeo to compete.

Farhad: Oh boy. It’s sort of incredible how quickly all this is happening. I’d imagined there would at least be a transition period of a few months in which nothing changed, but we’re just going to dive in to a whole new regime for regulating tech and media. Buckle up!

Anyway, thanks for being here. I actually learned something, which, let me tell you, never happens when Mike is here.

Cecilia: Loved being your guest co-pilot. Talk again soon — maybe on the improved Hangouts, with Mike too!

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