The State House Versus Big Tech

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This will be one of the inescapable threads of our digital lives: Government authorities almost everywhere are weighing whether and how to assert more control over the technology that shapes our future.

What had been a relatively hands-off approach to regulating the technology industry is now being reconsidered from global capitals to smaller U.S. states. We’re seeing this play out over taxes, novel forms of work, digital privacy, new applications of corporate power and the bounds of free expression.

Some of the government efforts may be misplaced or counterproductive, but this clash is not going away, and its outcomes will be both unpredictable and momentous.

I discussed these developments and why they matter with my colleague David McCabe, who recently wrote about U.S. states trying to impose new taxes on big technology companies.

Shira: What are some of the proposed U.S. state or local tech laws that you’re watching?

David: The one that just passed in Maryland was a novel tax on ads that companies like Facebook and Google show to state residents. The state is trying to plug budget holes by targeting new taxes at rich tech companies, and it’s not alone. Indiana and Connecticut are considering similar taxes to help fund rural broadband or online bullying prevention programs.

There’s a feeling, too, that these tech companies haven’t been taxed enough relative to their profits and influence on the economy.

Besides the tax measures, New York had proposed reforming its antitrust law to make it easier to sue tech companies.

And there is a bill in Florida that would prohibit companies from suspending the accounts of political candidates. This may be one of several state proposals that we’ll see in response to the unproven claims that social media companies are biased against conservative views.

Those proposed bills — and North Dakota’s bill on how Apple charges for iPhone apps in the state — seem like issues that Congress typically handles.

Yes, but the state legislatures clearly don’t believe issues like data privacy, online expression and tech monopolies are wholly federal matters. Congress also moves slowly or is completely gridlocked on many of these concerns.

It is not clear, though, how far states are permitted to go in these tech regulations and taxes. The Maryland digital advertising tax will almost certainly be challenged in court.

How do tech companies feel about this?

We’ll probably hear more from them that state lawmakers are in over their heads and will hurt their own states’ economies with new taxes or regulation. That’s often how any company responds to more government rules or costs.

And on some issues — notably after California passed strict digital privacy laws — big technology companies are pushing for federal laws, in part to head off any future local or state rules that might be even harsher.

Is there a common theme among new regulations that tech companies are facing in places like Pakistan, Australia and the United States?

It’s a sign of the new reality for Google, Facebook, Amazon and America’s other tech powers. These companies started out as lightly regulated newcomers, but as they grew and went global, other countries started to become concerned about the companies’ effect on their economies, workers and people’s communications.

Now the reconsideration of a laissez-faire approach to tech regulation has landed back in the United States, including in states and cities.

Tip of the Week

How to unlock an iPhone while wearing a mask

In the category of tiny victories, the New York Times consumer technology columnist Brian X. Chen walks through a coming feature for newer model iPhones that recognizes our faces when we’re wearing a mask. Spoiler alert: This won’t apply to everyone with an iPhone.

A nagging annoyance for many iPhone owners in the pandemic is the inability of the device’s face scanner to recognize us with our masks on. That means we can’t unlock our phones while wearing a face mask, and we’ve had to resort to punching in a passcode. There are, of course, bigger problems this year. But still, this feels lame.

There’s a solution on the way — if you have an Apple Watch. In the next version of iOS (14.5), you’ll be able to quickly unlock the phone while wearing a mask. The watch essentially becomes the way for the iPhone to verify that it’s you.

The new iPhone software is still in beta mode, meaning the official version has yet to be released to the public. I typically recommend against installing beta software because it can be prone to glitches. But if you’re eager to unlock your phone sans mask, here’s what you can do:

Sign up for Apple’s beta software program. Then click through the steps to enroll your iPhone and Apple Watch so that they can install the beta software.

After installing the beta software on both the iPhone and Apple Watch, open the Settings app on your iPhone. Then scroll down to “Face ID & Passcode.” In this menu, scroll down to “Unlock with Apple Watch” and toggle on the option to use your Apple Watch to unlock when the image scanner detects your face with a mask.

Next time you’re at the grocery store and you look at your phone, your watch will vibrate once and unlock your phone. Sweet relief.

Before we go …

From government lawyers to private lawsuits: David’s latest article is about people — including “Mr. Sweepy,” the owner of a small sweepstakes website — suing Google and Facebook with the same claims as the government antitrust lawsuits.

What do Vanilla Ice, Roger Stone and Ai Weiwei have in common? They’re on Clubhouse, the nearly year-old audio chatroom app. My colleagues Erin Griffith and Taylor Lorenz wrote that Clubhouse’s rise has generated debate about whether audio is the next wave of social media. The start-up has also faced complaints about harassment, misinformation and leaky user data.

Definitive evidence that you’re not cool: The laugh-cry emoji is for old people, CNN tells us. The reporter also tweeted a teenager’s list of youth-approved emojis.

Hugs to this

I’m terrible at ice skating, but look at how beautiful it looks on canals in the Netherlands. (Uhhh, but be careful on thin ice!) And the country has been waiting 24 years for perfect canal ice to hold a beloved 120-mile speedskating race.

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