Skip to content
The Morning Dispatch: Tech Under Fire
Go to my account

The Morning Dispatch: Tech Under Fire

Plus, did the NBA hide its knowledge of Uighur abuses in China to keep its access to the Chinese market?

Happy Thursday!

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • The United States confirmed 77,611 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday, with 9.2 percent of the 839,868 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,473 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 150,708.

  • Just days before the CARES Act’s $600-per-week unemployment insurance boost is set to expire, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said that the administration and Democratic leaders are “nowhere close to a deal” on a new coronavirus stimulus bill.

  • Defense Secretary Mark Esper shared plans to shift 12,000 of the 36,000 U.S. troops currently stationed in Germany out of the country in the coming weeks. The move—which Esper said will cost “single-digit” billions of dollars to pull off—comes after years of President Trump criticizing Germany for its inadequate contributions to NATO’s defense spending.

  • Nancy Pelosi announced a rule requiring all representatives and their staff to wear masks on the House floor after Rep. Louie Gohmert of Texas—who is known for forgoing a face covering around the Capitol—tested positive for the coronavirus. Gohmert notified his staff during an in-person meeting.

  • The Department of Justice announced plans to deploy federal agents to Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee amid reported spikes in violent crime in each of the cities. “The Department of Justice’s assets will supplement local law enforcement efforts, as we work together to take the shooters and chronic violent criminals off of our streets,” Attorney General William Barr said in the statement. 

  • Lawmakers were briefed Tuesday by top intelligence officials on the growing threat to U.S. elections posed by China, according to Axios. It’s at least the second time in the last six weeks that members of Congress have been warned about potential China interference, sources tell The Dispatch. China’s cyber capabilities far outstrip those of other prospective threats, U.S. officials believe, but Russia is considered far more aggressive in its approach and more likely to pose a threat to the 2020 vote, now less than 100 days away.

Big Tech Under the Congressional Microscope

The CEOs of four Big Tech heavyweights—Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple, and Sundar Pichai of Alphabet (Google)—testified before the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial, and Administrative Law on Tuesday. The hearing marked the culmination of a lengthy House investigation into potential issues posed by Silicon Valley’s increasing dominance over a number of different sectors of American society.

Big Tech has operated with relatively unregulated freedom for decades, but some lawmakers are seeking to reform Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which affords liability protection to companies for third-party content posted on websites. Meaning, you can’t sue Facebook over what other people are saying on the company’s platform.

But companies like the ones represented in yesterday’s hearing have come under fire in recent years, as a series of revelations and controversies have caused many in Washington to sour on the communication technologies and social media sector. Accusations that Facebook played a role in promoting misleading information leading up to the 2016 election, suspicions that both social media platforms and search engines like Google suppress or even censor conservative viewpoints, and a general feeling that companies like Facebook, Google, Apple, and Amazon—who collectively control about $5 trillion in market power—are monopolizing American markets and crowding out competition have all led to growing scrutiny from lawmakers.

Although this scrutiny is bipartisan, Republicans and Democrats have significantly different reasons for going after Big Tech. Progressives tend to cite their traditional opposition toward corporate concentration—Amazon, for example, reportedly used data gleaned from third-party sellers on its platform to launch competing products—paired with concerns over the proliferation of hate speech and misinformation that threatens to sway electoral outcomes. Conservatives emphasize what many of them see as the companies’ anti-conservative bias, as well as some of their close relationships with China.

These divergent opinions were visible early on in Tuesday’s hearing. Opening statements from the subcommittee’s members varied widely in emphasis and subject, with leading Democrats like David Cicilline and Jerry Nadler reiterating their concerns about the size of the tech corporations and Republicans emphasizing free speech issues.

“Many of the practices used by these companies have harmful economic effects,” Cicilline said. “They discourage entrepreneurship, destroy jobs, hike costs, and degrade quality. Simply put: They have too much power.”

“I’ll just cut to the chase,” Rep. Jim Jordan added. “Big Tech is out to get conservatives. That’s not a suspicion, that’s not a hunch, that’s a fact.”

These differing objections also resulted in different lines of attack on the tech executives during questioning. Democrats concentrated on anti-competitive behavior and the parameters of the companies’s alleged monopolization of the market, while GOP members seemed less concerned by that particular objection. “Being big is not inherently bad,”’ argued Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner. “Quite the opposite: In America, you should be rewarded for your success.” But Republicans zeroed in on free speech and censorship issues, which Democrats largely ignored.

Big Tech executives, for their part, appealed to patriotism and America’s commitment to openness, freedom, and democracy in their opening arguments, emphasizing their own companies’ rags-to-riches stories as being within “the long tradition of American innovation,” to use Pichai’s words. Bezos shared his own personal story as the adopted child of immigrant parents who rose to become the wealthiest man in the world, and Zuckerberg warned that taking government action against America’s technology sector could leave a vacuum for Chinese technology companies, who are significantly less committed to the principles of a free society than their American counterparts. All four made a point to praise the recently deceased Rep. John Lewis, whose memorial service initially postponed the hearing.

During opening statements and throughout the questioning periods, the four executives also defended their companies against accusations of monopolization and anti-competitive practices, citing high customer satisfaction ratings to argue that they were still a positive force for good, and rebuking accusations of unethical practices domestically and abroad.

With a few exceptions, however, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle seemed to remain skeptical.

“In the 19th century we had robber barons, and in the 21st century we have cyber barons,” said Jamie Raskin (D-MD). “So we want to make sure that the extraordinary power that you’ve amassed is not used against the cause of democracy and human rights abroad or against free markets here at home.”

The NBA’s New China Problem

Last fall, a lone tweet by an NBA executive in support of protesters in Hong Kong led to China pulling NBA games from its state television and jeopardizing a $5 billion revenue stream for the league. It’s hard to imagine what the fallout will be, then, from an ESPN story published Thursday afternoon that alleges abusive behavior by Chinese coaches in sports academies run in cooperation with the NBA, with an extensive history of coaches hitting players and throwing balls at them, and athletes being denied schooling while crammed into uncomfortable and overcrowded living accommodations. 

The NBA has been active in China since 1979, but interest in the sport took off when the Houston Rockets selected Chinese player Yao Ming with the first pick of the 2002 NBA Draft. Yao played eight seasons for the Rockets and helped make the league even more popular in China. The ESPN story describes the launch of the academies as a mission to “Find another Yao.”

Starting in 2016, the NBA established residential developmental programs in three provinces, including one in Xinjiang, the same province where Chinese authorities have reportedly detained about 1 million Uighur Muslims. Much of ESPN’s story focuses on accounts of abuse at that academy, which was shuttered in 2019. Coaches reported that eight to 10 athletes were often assigned to rooms designed to accommodate only two people. And the Americans coaching the players had their own problems: Some were unable to find housing and one was detained for hours because he did not have his passport on him.

In all locations, according to the article, the NBA set up camp within existing government-run academies, and as such “the arrangement put NBA activities under the direction of Chinese officials who selected the players and helped define the training.”

The article describes coaches reporting accounts of abuse and mistreatment to league officials based in China, but the sources express uncertainty about whether specific incidents were ever escalated to the league office in New York.

The story relies on former NBA employees for its account of abusive behavior and paints a picture of a league that has little desire for a new controversy with China: “NBA officials asked current and former employees not to speak with ESPN for this story. In an email to one former coach, a public relations official added: ‘Please don’t mention that you have been advised by the NBA not to respond.’”

The authors do disclose that ESPN has a seat on the board and a small ownership stake of NBA China, in addition to a partnership with the outfit that streams NBA games in China.

The October controversy, which led to such remarkable scenes as fans being removed from preseason games in the United States for carrying signs and chanting in support of Hong Kong, attracted the attention of U.S. politicians from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to Ted Cruz, who questioned the league’s relationship with the Communist-led nation.

Sports Illustrated reported last week that, in response to a letter from Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, that the league had announced that it had closed the Xinjiang academy more than a year ago. On Thursday, Blackburn tweeted an admonition of the NBA to “voluntarily correct the record of their involvement.”

Rep. Mike Gallagher tells The Dispatch that the NBA is making a conscious choice — and it’s making the wrong one. “The Chinese Communist Party’s crimes against humanity in Xinjiang are no secret. Beyond extensive and high profile reports across major US media, ESPN’s reporting suggests that the NBA was warned time and again of the atrocious conditions in Xinjiang and not only ignored them, but actively swept them under the rug, even to this day. The NBA has a very fundamental decision to make: Is it an American company that believes in American values, or are concentration camps, mass sterilization, and cultural genocide, all directed at a vulnerable minority population, allowable if the price is right? I think we all know the NBA’s answer.”

Will NeverTrump Get Its Revenge in 2020?

About 20 percent of Donald Trump’s voters in 2016 pulled the lever for him despite having an unfavorable opinion of the guy. That’s about 12.6 million voters. Trump won the Electoral College because 80,000 people broke his way in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.

In a piece for the site , Declan spoke with the founders of two groups—the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump (RVAT)—that are planning to bombard these voters with ads over the coming months to ensure Trump is a one-term president.

They share a goal—making Joe Biden the 46th commander-in-chief—but other than that, their approach and visions for the country could not be more different. RVAT is relying heavily on testimonial videos from Trump 2016 voters who have since changed their mind, while the Lincoln Project—which is, unlike RVAT, working to unseat incumbent Republican senators across the country—churns out ads designed to get inside Trump’s head and psych him out.

“Porn for MSNBC viewers” is how [GOP consultant Rob] Stutzman referred to the Lincoln Project and its political advertising. Current Republican operatives have taken to calling the group a Democratic super PAC, citing its donor rolls, which, as of June 30, feature scores of prominent large-dollar Democratic donors in addition to its more grassroots fundraising. Its offerings are “wildly popular in Democrat Twitter, in places like MSNBC,” Stutzman continued, “because it’s so cathartic and satisfying. But I don’t know that it’s particularly persuasive to Republicans.”

The group’s ads buck nearly all the insights gleaned from Defending Democracy Together’s focus groups. They feature scary voice-overs, include plenty ofTrump mocking, and focus on inside-the-Beltway stories that don’t matter to voters. But RVAT staffers think their more aggressive peer is complementary to their own efforts, targeting a different slice of the electorate—and one person in particular.

The Lincoln Project characterizes itself as “having an audience of one, trying to get in Trump’s head,” [RVAT co-founder Sarah] Longwell said. “That’s what they’re doing. What we’re doing is we are narrowly focused on deep persuasion of our target audience.”

[Lincoln Project co-founder Steve] Schmidt did not reject the notion that his group engages in what Miller referred to as “PSYOPS” (psychological operations) against the president. “We were the first people to point out [Trump’s] stumbling down the ramp at West Point and drinking water. Fast forward to [his] Tulsa [rally], for 45 minutes he goes up and talks about drinking water and walking down the ramp, which makes him look deranged,” Schmidt said. “His taking of the dementia test is all rooted out of our advertising, right? Making fun of him and that stuff.”

Worth Your Time

  • Shortly before he died, Rep. John Lewis wrote an op-ed to be published on the day of his funeral. “Ordinary people with extraordinary vision can redeem the soul of America by getting in what I call good trouble, necessary trouble. Voting and participating in the democratic process are key. The vote is the most powerful nonviolent change agent you have in a democratic society. You must use it because it is not guaranteed. You can lose it.”

  • For all of our poll aficionados out there, this breakdown in the New York Times is a must-read. Nate Cohn walks us through the various criticisms of polling methodology to answer the question: Are polls systematically missing Trump voters? The answer, in contrast to 2016, seems to be “no.” Voter registration—which tends to be more fixed than party identification in polls—“offers evidence consistent with the basic proposition that Democrats outnumber Republicans, and probably significantly,” he writes. Cohn also contends that registered Republican voters might actually be more likely than registered Democrats to respond to pollsters, not the other way around. “Mr. Trump’s problem wasn’t the number of people who said they voted for him last time: It was that only 86 percent of those who said they voted for him last time said they would do so again.”

  • Chinese President Xi Jinping has said time and time again that he wants the People’s Republic of China to lead the world in artificial intelligence by the next decade. “But Xi also wants to use AI’s awesome analytical powers to push China to the cutting edge of surveillance,” writes Ross Andersen in The Atlantic. “He wants to build an all-seeing digital system of social control, patrolled by precog algorithms that identify potential dissenters in real time.” Check out this inside scoop into China’s Orwellian attempt to build a system of complete social control that can “predict political resistance before it happens.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Also Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • As we noted yesterday, President Trump told Axios’s Jonathan Swan that he has never confronted Vladimir Putin about the Russian bounties reportedly offered to the Taliban to kill American troops. But we know from several credible reports that information was in the president’s daily intelligence briefing and that the U.S. government took several steps to respond to the intelligence, including new force-protection measures in Afghanistan. On this week’s episode of the Dispatch Podcast, Steve reminds us, “It’s been weeks since this was first reported, it’s been months since this was first briefed, and the president of the United States is officially silent on the fact that Russians are trying to kill our troops in Afghanistan.” Tune in to for the gang’s thoughts on this, the Republican Party/Burn It All Down Wars, and the latest updates in Biden’s veepstakes.

  • On the topic of Russian bounties paid to Islamic insurgents in Afghanistan, it’s worth considering the kinds of questions the president should have asked Putin after he heard the intelligence. Even if you don’t believe the White House was provided the intelligence months ago—and it was—the president could have acted on the allegations because they appeared in the New York Times. But as Jonah argues in his Wednesday G-File (🔒), “What is clear is that Trump doesn’t want the story to be true, and even if it is true, he doesn’t want it to get in the way of his bromance with Putin.” So much for America First.

  • We’ve written a lot about China in recent weeks—today’s TMD is no exception. The rise of China as an economic and military rival to the U.S. is one of the most important stories in the world—and will be for decades. Which makes Tom Joscelyn’s even more valuable. Be sure to read his Vital Interests newsletter (🔒) from yesterday that asks the question: Was President Nixon wrong to initiate America’s opening to China? “The prevailing narrative holds that Nixon’s opening to China was a bold and farsighted strategic move that changed the balance of power in the Cold War,” Joscelyn writes. “This is often stated as a truism with little to no critical examination of the underlying facts.”

Let Us Know

The tradeoff inherent in the business models of a lot of these Big Tech companies is that consumers (us) will get, objectively, really great products—two-day package delivery, unlimited cloud storage space that syncs across all your devices, the ability to message essentially any person in the world instantaneously—for little to no cost, while the tech companies get our data, and increasingly dominant market shares. Is this a fair deal? Who would benefit from a broken up Google or Facebook?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Sarah Isgur (@whignewtons), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Nate Hochman (@njhochman), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).

Photograph by Mandel Ngan/Pool/Getty Images.