A key appropriations bill picks up two tech-policy provisions while leaving many others for the next session of Congress.
A year-end, $1.7 trillion spending bill now includes measures to require more disclosure of larger online sellers and to ban TikTok from government hardware, making their passage into law exceedingly likely.
Tuesday morning’s announcement(Opens in a new window) by the Senate Appropriations Committee of the 2023 Omnibus Appropriations bill and release of its 4,155-page text (PDF(Opens in a new window)) tees up imminent House and Senate votes for it. Because these year-end measures(Opens in a new window) belatedly fund major government tasks, they rank among Washington’s largest and least-stoppable legislative vehicles.
The online-retail provisions will require sellers with $20,000 or more in annual revenue on an online marketplace such as Amazon to post their full name, physical address, and contact data on those marketplaces—with exemptions for home addresses and personal phone numbers. They also must furnish marketplaces with their bank-account number or comparable payment-processing details, tax ID numbers, copies of government identification documents, and email addresses and phone numbers.
A larger group of sellers, defined as those clocking 200 or more transactions totaling $5,000 or more over a 12-month span, would avoid the public-disclosure requirement but would still need to provide the above documentation to online marketplaces.
Those marketplaces, in turn, will have to give shoppers a reporting mechanism for non-compliant sellers and then suspend them promptly, with enforcement delegated to the Federal Trade Commission and individual states.
Those provisions come from the INFORM Consumers Act(Opens in a new window) (short for “Integrity, Notification, and Fairness in Online Retail Marketplaces”), introduced in October 2021 by Reps. Jan Schakowsky(Opens in a new window) (D-Ill.) and Gus Bilirakis(Opens in a new window) (R-Fla.).
The omnibus bill’s provision exiling TikTok from government devices is simpler. It gives federal agencies 60 days to write rules banning that social media service “or any successor application or service developed or provided by ByteDance Limited or an entity owned by ByteDance Limited” on government hardware, with exceptions for law-enforcement, national-security, and security-research cases.
The underlying legislation, the No TikTok on Government Devices Act(Opens in a new window), was introduced in March 2020 by Sens. Josh Hawley(Opens in a new window) (R-Mo.) and Rick Scott(Opens in a new window) (R-Fla.).
While the INFORM Act targets long-running problems with counterfeit products and general duplicity in online retail and follows more-extensive rules in the European Union, the case for the TikTok bill isn’t as clear as the unanimous Senate vote last week for the measure and recent state-government bans might suggest.
Hawley and Scott’s announcements of the bill focus on privacy risks from ByteDance’s immensely popular app, with Hawley alleging that TikTok collects “the messages people send, pictures they share, their keystrokes and location data.” But security researchers have largely debunked those allegations.
For example, Marcus Hutchins wrote in a Dec. 15 post on his Malware Tech Blog(Opens in a new window) that TikTok’s ability to peek at the clipboard is too transient and context-starved to be useful, while its location insight stops at a device’s IP address. Meanwhile, numerous apps collect far more data than TikTok and sell it to data brokers—an activity that Congress has not only failed to stop but made easier by voting in 2017 to quash pending privacy regulations covering internet providers.
Hutchins did note the possible utility of TikTok for Chinese government propaganda but noted that the Chinese Communist Party now has a much softer target in a Twitter stripped of much of its trust-and-safety machinery.
Hawley, however, is particularly ill-suited to discuss amplifying the fictions of government leaders, having championed President Trump’s lies about losing the 2020 election(Opens in a new window) even after the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
A separate bill not in the omnibus legislation, the ANTI-SOCIAL CCP Act(Opens in a new window) (Averting the National Threat of Internet Surveillance, Oppressive Censorship and Influence, and Algorithmic Learning by the Chinese Communist Party Act) announced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R.-Fla.), cites the government-propaganda angle to ban all commercial transactions with TikTok and other large social apps under the control of China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Cuba, and Venezuela.
The omnibus bill, whose headline components include such spending boosts as $118.7 billion more for medical care for military veterans and $44.9 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine and NATO allies, also omits several other high-profile tech-policy proposals.
The three biggest bills now effectively punted into the next session of Congress:
The American Innovation and Choice Online Act, which targets alleged abuses of market power by gatekeeper tech platforms;
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would let news publishers negotiate collectively for payment for “use” of their content by large online platforms, even if that use is a search-results link;
And the Open App Markets Act, which would compel app stores that today keep 15% of more or many app transactions to allow third-party payment systems.
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Rob Pegoraro writes about interesting problems and possibilities in computers, gadgets, apps, services, telecom, and other things that beep or blink. He’s covered such developments as the evolution of the cell phone from 1G to 5G, the fall and rise of Apple, Google’s growth from obscure Yahoo rival to verb status, and the transformation of social media from CompuServe forums to Facebook’s billions of users. Pegoraro has met most of the founders of the internet and once received a single-word email reply from Steve Jobs.
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