What you can do

FCC Chairman confirmed; legislators, tech community object

On October 2, acting Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai was confirmed by the Senate, in a 52-41 vote, for a four-year term. The confirmation was expected, given Republican support for Pai; four Democratic Senators (Claire McCaskill, D-MO; Gary Peters, D-MI; Joe Manchin, D-WV; and Jon Tester, D-MT) also voted for confirmation. However, other Senate Democrats strongly opposed the confirmation. Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) issued a scathing press release condemning Pai's efforts to roll back net neutrality. Many tech companies and Internet activists have also opposed Pai's confirmation, citing the possibility that if net neutrality is weakened or ended, price gouging by carriers could have chilling effects on content providers and consumers.

Trump administration seeks personal social media data from protesters

The Department of Justice (DOJ) has tried to obtain a warrant to search IP addresses of thousands of people who may have simply clicked on either the Facebook page or the main webpage of DisruptJ20, an activist group that organized anti-Trump protests on Inauguration Day. The DOJ is targeting three organizers of the protest for additional scrutiny and seeks their entire Facebook activities for 90 days. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has taken up their case, representing the activists in arguing that the proposed social media search will expose private information about thousands of Facebook users who visited their page. This is the second such move the DOJ has made against users and creators of the site. Just last month, the DOJ attempted to gain access to the information of millions of visitors to the site from its web hosting provider, Dreamhost. Although it dropped its larger effort, the DOJ did compel Dreamhost to turn over user data. It would appear that the administration is using these cases to establish the limits of how it can gain the ability to access and search the Internet activity of those opposed to administration policies.

Senate committee takes up self-driving car bill

The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is considering the American Vision for Safer Transportation through Advancement of Revolutionary Technologies (AV START) Act this Wednesday, October 4. The legislation, introduced by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI) and John Thune (R-SD), seeks to establish federal guidelines surrounding the development and sale of autonomous vehicles (AVs). Critics and consumer groups have raised concerns that the bill exempts car manufacturers from key safety regulations and allows them to "use our public highways as their private laboratories however they wish with no safety protections at all." In its current form, the bill relies on car makers to voluntarily report AV safety issues and performance problems—and allows manufacturers to exempt themselves from liability through terms of service agreements. Consequently, consumer advocates warn, the rush to allow AVs on the road may come at the cost of privacy and safety.

Bipartisan commission recommends modernization of government data policies

The Commission on Evidence-Based Policymaking (CEP), a bipartisan group of experts formed by an Act of Congress in 2016, issued a report in September that suggested improvements to usability of government data, while maintaining strong privacy protection for individuals. (Data covered by the CEP report contain no personal information about subjects, and are used primarily for statistical purposes.) A September 26 CEP presentation to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee was met with confusion by some lawmakers, who incorrectly expected these data to identify waste or fraud, or to include research outcomes rather than supplying authorized researchers with datasets useful for establishing evidence-based policy. The CEP recommended loosening some restrictions on the use of Federal datasets, while establishing a National Secure Data Service to curate data while maintaining appropriate privacy precautions.

Tech companies face role in Russian election interference

More details in the Russian disinformation campaign in the 2016 election came to light this week, as Facebook and Twitter acknowledged that Russian actors used their platforms to influence American elections. Tech leaders are pledging to increase vigilance and transparency in combating this information warfare, but the federal government has dragged its feet on addressing foreign propaganda in American media. Rather than condemn Russia's meddling, President Trump accused Facebook of favoring his opponent in the presidential election.

Hurricane-struck islands finally have EPA administrator

After nine months without an administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA's) Region 2 (which includes Puerto Rico), the EPA named Peter Lopez to the position on September 28. Lopez, a Republican state assemblymember from New York, will be the regional administrator for New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. During his 11 years as a New York state legislator, Lopez has been a member of the assembly's environmental and agricultural committees. He is slated to visit Puerto Rico in mid-October to observe and assess the environmental damage caused by Hurricane Maria. Lopez will also face pre-existing challenges: prior to the storm, Puerto Rico already had 23 Superfund sites, including a former U.S. Navy bomb-test area on the island of Vieques that is heavily contaminated with toxic waste and potentially compromised by storm flooding.

Quick takes

  • Tom Price resigned as Secretary of Health and Human Services on September 29, after a scandal involving his use of expensive, taxpayer-supported charter flights to do government business. EPA head Scott Pruitt and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are also under fire for their use of non-commercial flights.
  • On September 25, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released a statement of concern that Trump's new immigration and visa restrictions will harm U.S. science.

Highlights from partner organizations

Have comments or something to add? Contact the RISE Stronger Science & Technology Policy Working Group at [email protected].

Want to learn more? Check us out online at risestronger.org/groups/rise-science-technology, and sign up for the RISE S&T Newsletter at tinyletter.com/rise-science-tech.