Analysis | The FTC’s newest member wants to scrutinize how tech may harm kids – The Washington Post

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Happy Thursday! Here’s a tidbit: Today’s newsletter is likely the first time a South American-born tech policy reporter has interviewed a South American-born FTC commissioner. 

On a programming note: We’ll be taking another break through Labor Day, but we’ll be back in your inboxes Sept. 6. 

Below: The Senate tees up a hearing on the Twitter whistleblower’s complaint, and Amazon plans to shut down its telehealth service. First:

The FTC’s newest member wants to scrutinize how tech may harm kids

During his confirmation process to join the Federal Trade Commission, Republican lawmakers depicted privacy scholar and former Democratic Senate aide Alvaro Bedoya as a “radical” who would take the agency in a “hyperpartisan” direction.

But in his debut address as a commissioner earlier this month, Bedoya zeroed in on an issue he thinks the two parties — and the FTC — can unite around: tackling concerns about children’s and teens’ mental health online. 

“Protecting kids has been historically one of those areas” of bipartisanship, Bedoya told me Tuesday, in his first sit-down interview since being sworn in at the FTC. 

His early focus on the topic has drawn plaudits from one of his Republican colleagues, Commissioner Christine Wilson, and it could lead to more stringent federal oversight of how technology companies like Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat affect younger users’ moods. 

“It’s important that industry knows that there are two commissioners who care a lot about this issue and are prioritizing it,” said Bedoya — a point he’s also conveyed to agency staff.

Bedoya said he sees several areas where regulators can act: scrutinizing the product choices companies make to keep kids hooked and how they profit off them, and aggressively enforcing children’s privacy standards. 

“What I am very interested in learning about is … the techniques used to keep kids and teens online longer than they want to be online,” he said.

Notably, Bedoya recently called for public input on two questions: When do design choices constitute unfair or deceptive practices, and when do potential harms to younger users outweigh the business benefit? The answers could create a road map for future enforcement actions. 

One upside, Bedoya said, is that there’s a growing body of research about how platforms may at times impact children’s mental health — but there’s more digging to be done, he said.

In 2020, long before Bedoya joined, the FTC demanded that nine social media companies including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube fork over information about how they collect and use personal data, including “how their practices affect children and teens.” 

By launching a formal study, the FTC can compel businesses to disclose closely held data. Bedoya said the tool could prove crucial in the agency’s bid to protect kids.

But Bedoya says Congress has a role to play, too, including by creating a new privacy division at the FTC, expanding federal protections for children’s data, funding government research into kids’ mental health and creating a duty for companies to act in the “best interest of the child.” Those ideas have appeared across a flurry of bipartisan children’s safety bills in Washington.

Not every policy item atop Bedoya’s agenda enjoys bipartisan support. 

Earlier this month, the FTC kicked off a lengthy and long-anticipated process to consider new rules around “lax data security or commercial surveillance practices.” 

Bedoya and the agency’s two other Democratic commissioners backed the move, but its two Republican commissioners opposed it, arguing it could undermine congressional efforts to pass federal privacy standards and that the agency was effectively acting as a legislator. 

“No matter what Congress does, we won’t stand in their way,” Bedoya said in response to criticisms of the rulemaking process. “But do I think it’s time? I think it’s time, absolutely.”

Bedoya, who as a scholar spearheaded research into how surveillance technologies can hurt marginalized groups, said one of his focuses will be considering when algorithms contribute to discrimination, and when that crosses into illegal activity. 

“As these algorithms creep into jobs, housing, health care, it absolutely raises the stakes of what the potential injuries are, and so it’s our job to look at that,” he said.

As the FTC’s third Democrat, Bedoya will also be a key vote on an array of tech issues, including how the agency addresses concerns about fraud and a lack of competition online.

Bedoya said another priority is to boost oversight of online scams that target users in languages other than English, and that he’s pushing to track when such cases are brought by the agency. 

“I want to make sure there’s a lasting, sustainable civil rights focus at the commission in line with the work and authorities that it has,” he said.

As one of the first Hispanic commissioners in the FTC’s 107-year history, Bedoya said it’s an issue that resonates deeply with him.

“When I think about issues like online fraud targeting Latinos and other immigrant groups, it strikes much closer to home. And it strikes me as my responsibility to address it,” Bedoya, born in Peru, wrote in an email Wednesday.

With the FTC battling a slew of tech giants over allegations they stifle competition, Bedoya is expected to play a central role, but his views on the topic are less well-known.

Next month, he’s set to deliver remarks detailing his thoughts on tech and antitrust in more detail. In a preview, he said the way competition intersects with data collection is top of mind.

“I remain very interested in data as a barrier to entry, and whether certain things that are good for competition may be bad for privacy and trying to figure out that balance,” Bedoya said. 

Our top tabs

Twitter whistleblower is set to testify before Senate committee next month

Former Twitter security chief Peiter “Mudge” Zatko is scheduled to appear at a Sept. 13 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing pursuant to a subpoena, Cat Zakrzewski reports. The hearing was announced just a day after The Post reported that Zatko had filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that Twitter has had “extreme, egregious deficiencies” in defending against hackers.

  • Beyond the hearing, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), said they’d “take further steps as needed to get to the bottom of these alarming allegations.”

Regulators in Europe have also taken notice of Zatko’s complaint. 

  • Ireland’s Data Protection Commission “became aware of the issues when we read the media stories [yesterday] and have engaged with Twitter on the matter,” Deputy Commissioner Graham Doyle told TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas.
  • France’s data-privacy agency, CNIL, says it’s “studying” the complaint that Zatko sent to U.S. regulators, Politico Europe’s Peter O’Brien reports. It could take action if the accusations are true, it said.
  • Twitter general counsel Sean Edgett told employees that the company reached out to “various agencies” around the world before The Post and CNN reported on Zatko’s whistleblower complaint, Reuters reported. And chief executive Parag Agrawal called Zatko’s claims “foundationally, technically and historically inaccurate,” the outlet reported.

Zatko’s complaint also made an appearance at a court hearing in Delaware. Lawyers representing Tesla chief executive Elon Musk used the high-ranking former Twitter executive’s allegations to argue for more data to support their case at a discovery hearing, Faiz Siddiqui and Elizabeth Dwoskin report

Facebook and Twitter took down a pro-Western influence campaign

The campaign mimicked the tactics countries like Russia have used to influence social media users’ perceptions of world events, but many of the accounts garnered little engagement or traction online, Naomi Nix reports. The accounts sought to influence users in the Middle East and Asia with pro-Western perspectives on international news like Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to a report from social media analytics firm Graphika and Stanford University.

It represents a rare case of a social media company finding that an apparent U.S.-sponsored campaign targeting foreign users violated the company’s rules. Facebook parent Meta spokeswoman Margarita Franklin said it was the first time the company has removed a foreign-focused network of accounts promoting the United States’ positions. Twitter declined to comment. Brig. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said the Defense Department would “look into and assess any information that Facebook provides.”

Amazon plans to shut down its telehealth service

Amazon’s decision to shutter Amazon Care by the end of a year is a surprise given Amazon chief executive Andy Jassy’s focus on expanding the company’s investments in the health-care sector like with its $3.9 billion acquisition of One Medical, Caroline O’Donovan reports. The announcement of its demise comes days after The Post reported that Amazon’s medical ambitions have sometimes clashed with the best practices of the health-care industry.

Amazon Care workers learned of the news Wednesday, Caroline reports. They were told Amazon Care’s customers didn’t see the value of the service, she reports. Amazon Care is available to Amazon’s workforce and a half dozen firms like Hilton, Silicon Labs, Precor and Amazon-owned Whole Foods. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Amazon spokeswoman Christina Smith confirmed the decision and shared a memo announcing the move. “This decision wasn’t made lightly and only became clear after many months of careful consideration,” Amazon senior vice president of health Neil Lindsay wrote in an email to staff. “Although our enrolled members have loved many aspects of Amazon Care, it is not a complete enough offering for the large enterprise customers we have been targeting, and wasn’t going to work long-term.”

Rant and rave

For several hours Wednesday, Facebook users had their news feeds flooded with spammy messages directed at celebrity accounts, the Verge’s Jon Porter reports. The issue was fixed, with a Meta spokesman saying it was caused by a “configuration change.” Porter:

Reporter Joe Tidy:

Journalist Whitney Jones:

Workforce report

Pinterest is facing a civil rights investigation in California (Protocol)

Twitter staff exodus accelerates amid Musk battle, whistleblower complaint (Reuters)

Inside the industry

YouTube is testing its theory on curbing misinformation in Europe (Protocol)

Apple sends invites for Sept. 7 event, analysts expect new iPhones (Reuters)

Agency scanner

SEC questions Twitter on how it counts fake accounts (Associated Press)

Tesla likely must face California agency’s race bias lawsuit (Reuters)

Niche internet micro celebrities are taking over the internet (Taylor Lorenz)

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