Who Are These Guys? Politicians Who Impact Tech -- Part 1
A select group of lawmakers have an outsized influence on tech-related matters like privacy, national security and anti-trust regulation, and their clout will help shape the fates of device makers and carriers in years to come.
"Who Are These Guys? Politicians Who Impact Tech" is a two-part article examining lawmakers who influence technology policy. Part 1 examines key figures with interests in privacy and antitrust.
Americans elect 535 people to write and amend federal laws, and a handful of those lawmakers focus on technology matters, either as part of a committee assignment or advocating on behalf of constituents. Their proposed policies and laws impact everything from privacy and anti-trust concerns, to national security and the role of regulations.
A few Congressional committees in particular enables members to develop specialized knowledge of the matters under their jurisdiction, like privacy and anti-trust concerns. While other committees consider technological issues, the House's Privacy Caucus and the Senate's Antitrust subcommittee promise to wield significant influence as issues like data tracking and carrier mergers and acquisitions continue to make headlines.
Other members of Congress, however, do not need to belong to committees to make their views on privacy and antitrust concerns heard, and have become formidable figures in the politics surrounding technology.
The Privacy Hawks
Name: Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.)
Key Initiatives: Co-chairman of the House Privacy Caucus, sponsored the Mobile Device Privacy Act, updated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, investigated Amazon's Silk Browser and Facebook's cookie-tracking practices.
Name: Rep. Joe Barton (R., Texas)
Key Initiatives: Co-chairman of the House Privacy Caucus, investigated Facebook's cookie-tracking, updated the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act
Reps. Markey and Barton sit on opposite sides of the aisle, but these lawmakers both take online privacy seriously, casting aside party lines to co-chair the House Privacy Caucus, keeping tabs on tech companies to ensure the privacy of U.S. citizens.
Facebook's CEO Mark Zuckerberg is also familiar with Markey and Barton. The lawmakers grilled Facebook execs over plans to share user information with third-party app developers, underscoring Congress' plans to continue pressing on privacy concerns. The Zuckerberg grilling followed Barton and Markey's campaign critiquing Facebook's cookie-tracking practice, which allowed the social media giant to track users even after they logged out of the site. Barton and Markey took the additional step to ask the FTC to formally investigate this behavior, and Facebook says it fixed the problem.
The Congressmen released letters from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile regarding the companies' data collection, use and storage. The carriers responded to concerns by outlining their privacy policies, which generally ask permission before tracking location, but all the major carriers claim no responsibility over data collection on third-party apps, an oversight that worries the Privacy Caucus.
And to demonstrate their attention to startups in addition to established firms, last summer the duo targeted Groupon for potentially exploitative privacy tactics.
Barton and Markey often present their concerns in joint letters, and specifically focus on how companies use customer data for their own benefit. The representatives are likely to stay on Google's case about its privacy overhaul, and as Facebook readies for its IPO and tries to compete with Apple and Google, Barton and Markey's Privacy Caucus is sure to chime in if Facebook's practices encroach on questionable privacy practices.
On the other hand, both representatives may have to juggle their committee responsibilities with maintaining their own jobs. The Texas and Massachusetts representatives face re-election in November 2012, both contending with challenges from redrawn district maps. (Kate Knibbs)
Name: Sen. Herb Kohl (D., Wisc.)
Key Initiatives: Chairman of Senate Antitrust subcommittee, ongoing antitrust investigation of Google, AT&T/T-Mobile merger
Name: Sen. Mike Lee (R., Utah)
Key Initiatives: Ongoing antitrust investigation of Google, ranking member of Senate Antitrust subcommittee
Kohl, as chairman of the Senate's Antitrust subcommittee panel, oversees checks and balances of the most powerful companies in the nation. Lee is a member of the panel as well.
In efforts to make sure Google wasn't unfairly stifling competitors, Kohl helped decipher antitrust allegations of Google in a Congressional hearing last year, and said lawmakers would investigate to make sure Google's rivals are "treated fairly," supporting a further Federal Trade Commission investigation of the search engine giant.
Kohl also authored a letter to the Federal Communications Commission while it debated AT&T's T-Mobile acquisition, saying the merger would harm competition and consumers and should be blocked.
"I have concluded that this acquisition, if permitted to proceed, would likely cause substantial harm to competition and consumers, would be contrary to antitrust law and not in the public interest, and therefore should be blocked by your agencies," said Kohl.
Like the committee chairman, Lee proves to be vocal in his role as ranking member of the Antitrust Subcommittee, joining the call for judiciary committees on Google's antitrust investigation. The Texas senator joined Sen. Kohl in urging the company to send top leaders Eric Schmidt and Larry Page, and hearing transcriptions show Lee did not shy from grilling Google on its free competition spirit.
"Google is in a position to determine who will succeed and who will fail on the Internet," said Lee. "In the words of the head of the Google's search ranking team, Google is the biggest kingmaker on Earth."
Kohl joined the Senate in 1988, and is currently serving his fourth six-year term. Sen. Kohl officially announced in May 2011 that he will not be seeking re-election, so for the remainder of 2012, Kohl's name will likely pop up from time to time as investigations continue of allegations against Google.
For his part, Lee, who joined the Senate in 2010 and authored a separate letter to the DoJ and FCC regarding the proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile, could be the next appointee to fill Kohl's committee spot if there are a majority of Republicans in the Senate. (Melissa Daniels)
A Sharp Eye on Data, Tracking and Privacy
Name: Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.)
Key Initiatives: Mobile tracking privacy concerns, FCC approval of AT&T and T-Mobile merger, Congressional bill for defining 4G
Other lawmakers made their impression on the tech world, not necessarily from a committee platform, but by advocating for the same issues that strike a chord with them or their constituents. Al Franken has been a vocal critic of growing privacy violations, emerging as an influential voice in mounting debate over what data devices track and who can access it.
Since being elected to the Senate in 2008, Sen. Franken continues to weigh in on a number of issues concerning how companies treat users -- notably, he's an advocate for control of mobile tracking, unabashedly going after the most powerful players.
Last summer, Franken introduced the Location Privacy Detection Act, which required mobile carriers to obtain user consent before sharing location data with third parties. Franken said while he was aware of the benefits data collection can offer, he still wanted to promote education and ensure certain user rights.
"Geolocation technology gives us incredible benefits, but the same information that allows emergency responders to locate us when we're in trouble is not necessarily information all of us want to share with the rest of the world," he said.
Franken even faced off with the Steve Jobs last year on the discovery Apple gather information iPhone and iPad users without their knowledge. In a letter sent directly to the groundbreaking CEO, Franken boldly asked why the data was stored unencrypted, and said its existence "raises serious privacy concerns."
The Minnesota senator continued to push the issue on app privacy, expanding his investigation to include Apple and Google regarding app developer's privacy policies and leading the Congressional charge against Carrier IQ diagnostic software, which possibly violated privacy rights.
In addition to questioning tech leaders, Franken demonstrates a willingness to actively participate in major issues. For example, Franken also urged the FCC to block approval of AT&T's T-Mobile acquisition in a 24-page letter, along with other federal lawmakers, and he helped craft a bill that would force carriers to clearly define 4G use and require the FCC to monitor service speed.
With a broad approach to regulatory concerns over operation of mobile companies and user treatment, Franken proves he is intent on ensuring consumer privacy and fair treatment from their mobile companies. In the coming years, Franken is likely to continue to follow these issues and push for bill passage in relation to privacy, an issue that shows no signs of going away as smartphones sweep the country's consumers. (Melissa Daniels)
Part 2 of "Who Are These Guys? Politicians Who Impact Tech" will focus on lawmakers who focus on national security, Internet piracy, and federal regulations. ♦
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