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Bad actors and rival nations have already manipulated tech platforms in attempts to shape American political outcomes. Given how much data is stored on their servers, data privacy experts fear the tech companies themselves could influence the electorate when they face an existential threat like the gig companies do in California.

“If you’re Uber, you’re using your monopoly power and your position in the sector to push advocacy that affects your bottom line,” said Dipayan Ghosh, a computer scientist who worked on privacy issues at Facebook and now directs the Digital Platforms & Democracy Project at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “I think that that’s highly problematic.”

The gig companies behind Proposition 22 have spent nearly $200 million on the initiative. It would carve ride share and delivery services out of Assembly Bill 5, a labor law the California legislature passed in 2019 to codify a state Supreme Court ruling on worker classification.

The platforms say the law poses an existential threat to their business models by requiring them to treat their workers as employees, while labor advocates counter that the companies have been depriving gig workers of health care and other benefits to which they are entitled.

Companies “risk annoying their customers” by targeting them with messages when they’re waiting for dinner or a ride home, said Bob Stern, the architect of California’s campaign finance rules. But such actions do not violate state election law, as long as they’re properly reported, he said.

Other legal scholars and technology experts shared a similar view: The use of a platform to advance policy favoring a company’s interests would likely be protected as free speech under the First Amendment unless the businesses violate their terms of service or data privacy regulations.

“A lot of the protections we have are not legal protections,” said Ashkan Soltani, a former chief technologist for the Federal Trade Commission. “They’re just norms.”

The labor battle in California is highly visible to rideshare and meal delivery users. But the potential for influence below the surface concerns data privacy experts even more.

In theory, some suggest Google could give lower search rankings to news stories about the need for a stringent data privacy regulation, and Facebook could boost content in its news feeds about the harms of gutting a legal shield for social media platforms — policies over which they have a deep business interest. There is no indication that they have done so.

“There’s not much to keep a company, legally speaking, from doing this,” said Mary Anne Franks, professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “Clearly they make choices all the time about what kind of stories rise up and what is trending. I can’t think of any wires it would trip.”

Google says that its search algorithms are designed to help people find the most relevant information from trusted sources, not to advance political agendas, and stresses that it does not sell higher search rankings. Different rules dictate the placement of ads that are labeled and often appear at the top of a search page.

A spokesperson noted the company’s announcement last year that it would stop allowing political advertisers to serve small groups of people with election ads based on narrow demographic profiles, a practice known as microtargeting. That policy would apply to Google itself, if it placed political ads, the spokesperson said.

Facebook declined to comment for the story.

Eric Goldman, a professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law in the Silicon Valley, argues that fears of powerful tech companies secretly manipulating the public and perverting democracy are overblown, especially given the backlash they already face in Washington and elsewhere over data privacy, disinformation and antitrust issues.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a long-anticipated antitrust suit against Google on Tuesday, while social media companies struggling to combat online disinformation have been slammed with allegations of anti-conservative bias from President Donald Trump and other Republicans in Washington.

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“It sounds really scary, ‘Oh my God, these people could totally muck with my mind,'” Goldman said. “The reality is Facebook and Google are doing everything in their power to avoid anything that smells like that.”

In California, Prop. 22 would give workers health care subsidies and other wage and job protections, and the campaign and the companies behind it have defended their tactics as a way to reach people most directly affected by the issue at hand.

“Uber’s app is sharing the voice of tens of thousands of drivers, 72% of whom support Prop 22 with millions of riders in California and keeping them informed of the stakes on this issue,” the company said in a statement. “We have previously shared videos from drivers with riders and MADD’s endorsement of prop 22 because of ridesharing’s impact on reducing drunk driving.”

But the unorthodox campaign strategy has created a backlash as consumers grow increasingly sensitive about the use of their personal data and unwanted intrusions into their lives.

“You can see that it cracks the door open,” said Hany Farid, a computer science professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who noted he was served an ad along with his meal on Uber Eats. “They can have a blatant ad on the app about a proposition that benefits them financially. What’s the next step? It just feels like you’re opening this door to manipulating the electorate in a way that doesn’t feel right to me.”

If any company says it won’t use someone’s personal information for a certain purpose, but it does anyway, that could trigger an investigation by the Federal Trade Commission or a state attorney general, especially in places like California that have enacted strong data privacy laws.

And less than two weeks before Election Day, drivers sued Uber on Thursday, alleging the company was illegally pressuring them to support Prop. 22 by requiring them to click through messages about the measure in their apps.

But legal experts say it’s otherwise legal for companies like Google, Facebook or Twitter to try to influence consumers by presenting or withholding certain information based on what they know about them.

In California, a wealthy activist behind a data privacy measure also on the November ballot wants the state to force companies to disclose whether they manipulate their algorithms to influence election outcomes — even if it can’t prevent such manipulations. Alastair Mactaggart included such a proposal in an early draft of his ballot initiative but later removed it, citing concerns about a First Amendment challenge bringing down the entire privacy law.

Mactaggart said last week that he will lobby to have an algorithmic disclosure bill taken up in the California legislature next year.

The problem is that there’s no way to know what’s taking place under the hood, said Soltani, who has consulted for Mactaggart.

“If someone wants to put their thumb on the scale and rank information based on what they know about a user and what they’re more susceptible to, not only is that permitted by the law but that’s the definition of behavioral advertising,” Soltani said. “That’s what the entire system is designed to do — to show the right content to the right person at the right time.”


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Trump super PAC to hold first fundraiser at Bedminster

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A pro-Donald Trump super PAC is holding its first fundraising event on May 22 at the former president’s Bedminster golf club, according to two people familiar with the planning.

The event will benefit Make America Great Again Action, a super PAC spearheaded by former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Trump is expected to attend the event, which will include reception and a dinner. The minimum price for entry is $250,000.

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Trump tapped Lewandowki earlier this year to oversee the super PAC as part of his post-White House political operation. It’s the second big money group Trump has formed. Shortly after the election, he launched Save America PAC, a leadership PAC that has raised tens of millions of dollars.


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Pierre ‘Pete’ du Pont IV dies; ran for president in 1988

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“I was born with a well-known name and genuine opportunity. I hope I have lived up to both,” du Pont said in announcing his longshot presidential bid in September 1986.

As a presidential candidate, du Pont attracted attention for staking out controversial positions on what he hoped would reverberate with voters as “damn right” issues. They included random drug testing for high school students, school vouchers, replacing welfare with work, ending farm subsidies, and allowing workers to invest in individual retirement accounts as an alternative to Social Security.

Some of those ideas have since become more mainstream.

He won the endorsement of New Hampshire’s largest newspaper but failed to gain traction among voters. He ended his campaign after finishing next-to-last in the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Afterward, du Pont remained engaged in politics. He frequently wrote opinion pieces for publications such as the Wall Street Journal and co-founded the online public policy journal IntellectualCapital.com. He also served as chairman of Hudson Institute, the National Review Institute and the National Center for Policy Analysis, a nonpartisan public policy research organization.

Pierre du Pont IV was born Jan. 22, 1935, in Delaware. After attending Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, he graduated from Princeton University in 1956 with an engineering degree. Following a four-year stint in the Navy, he obtained a law degree from Harvard University in 1963.

He joined the Du Pont Company, where he held several positions, resigning as a quality control supervisor in 1968 to begin his political career.

After running unopposed for a state House seat in 1968, he immediately set his sights on Congress, running as a fiscal conservative and winning the first of three terms in 1970.

Elected governor in 1976, du Pont fought successfully to restore financial integrity to a state he had declared “bankrupt” shortly after his inauguration. He presided over two income tax cuts; constitutional amendments restricting state spending and requiring three-fifths votes in the legislature to raise taxes; and establishment of an independent revenue forecasting panel.

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After a rocky start with Democratic legislators, including an embarrassing override of a 1977 budget veto, du Pont forged successful relationships with lawmakers from both parties to tackle thorny issues including prison overcrowding and corruption and school desegregation. He was re-elected in a landslide in 1980, winning a record 71 percent of the vote and becoming the first two-term governor in Delaware in 20 years.

In his second term, du Pont signed landmark legislation that loosened Delaware’s banking laws, including removing the cap on interest rates that banks could charge customers. The Financial Center Development Act made Delaware a haven for some of the country’s largest credit card issuers.

Under du Pont’s leadership, Delaware also established a nonprofit employment counseling and job placement program for Delaware high school seniors not bound for college. It served as the model for a national program adopted by several other states.

Prohibited by law from seeking a third term, du Pont briefly withdrew to the private sector, joining a Wilmington law firm in 1985. A year and a half later, he announced his bid for the GOP presidential nomination, becoming the first declared candidate in the 1988 campaign.

During an appearance at the Hotel du Pont in downtown Wilmington, where du Pont announced he was abandoning his presidential campaign, he praised an electoral process that gave a shot at the White House to a former small-state governor with unorthodox ideas.

“You’ve given me the opportunity of a lifetime. You listened, you considered and you chose. I could not have asked for any more,” du Pont said. “For in America, we do not promise that everyone wins, only that everyone gets a chance to try.”

Du Pont is survived by his wife of over 60 years, the former Elise R. Wood; a daughter and three sons; and 10 grandchildren.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, a memorial service will be held at a later date, Perkins said.


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Larry Hogan decries ‘circular firing squad’ within GOP

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Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said Sunday the Republican Party experienced its “worst four years we’ve had, ever” under President Donald Trump, noting the party’s losses in both chambers of Congress and the White House.

“We’ve got to get back to winning elections again. And we have to be able to have a Republican Party that appeals to a broader group of people,” said Hogan, a Republican, on NBC News’ “Meet the Press.” “Successful politics is about addition and multiplication, not subtraction and division.”

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Hogan’s comments comes as Republicans deliberate on the future of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) in the party’s House leadership, particularly over her repeated criticisms of Trump, which many Republicans view as breaking ranks and distracting from the party’s opposition to President Joe Biden. House Republicans are expected to strip Cheney of her role as conference chair and replace her with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.).


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