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Despite international aid efforts ramping up, the second wave of Covid-19 infections in India continues to intensify, yielding a new record high for daily deaths on Sunday and prompting an outcry—from businessmen and public officials alike—for government intervention to help ease the rate of infection.

Key Facts

In a Sunday statement for the Confederation of Indian Industry, Indian billionaire Uday Kotak called on increased lockdown measures in India and urged “the strongest national steps, including curtailing economic activity, to reduce suffering.”

India’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare reported 3,689 new Covid-19 deaths Sunday, marking the nation’s largest daily death toll yet and bringing the total number of Covid-19 deaths in the country to more than 215,000.

The country also reported 392,488 new cases Sunday, down from a record high of 401,993 reported Saturday but still the second-highest daily tally on record for any country around the world.

Meanwhile, India’s death and infection rates continue to outpace its rate of vaccination: Roughly 157 million vaccines have been administered in the country, up just 1.2% Sunday, and despite India being the world’s leading producer of vaccines, only 2% of its population has been fully inoculated due largely to high vaccine prices and a large impoverished population.

“Enough is enough,” the High Court of Delhi said Saturday as it directed the nation’s central government—which has been criticized for its lackluster pandemic response—to supply oxygen to India’s capital territory of Delhi, warning officials that it may initiate contempt of court proceedings if the order is not implemented.

“The hospitals are full,” Germany’s Ambassador to India, Walter J Lindner, said late Saturday while delivering ventilators to New Delhi, adding that people are sometimes dying in front of hospitals and in their cars because they have no oxygen.

Crucial Quote 

“At this critical juncture when [the] toll of lives is rising… safeguarding lives is of utmost priority and nationwide maximal response measures at the highest level [must be] called for to cut the transmission links,” Kotak said Sunday. “We must heed expert advice on this subject—from India and abroad.”

Key Background

For roughly two weeks, a second wave of the pandemic has intensified in India—overwhelming hospitals, exhausting the nation’s vaccine supply and making the country the biggest Covid-19 hotspot in the world. Many are blaming India’s ruling party for the outbreak, saying Prime Minister Narendra Modi campaigned aggressively for crucial state elections while failing to impose measures to help prevent a pandemic outbreak. Now starting to trickle in, election results are pointing to an overwhelming defeat for Modi’s party. “Evidently something went wrong, evidently we were hit by a tsunami,” Narendra Taneja, a spokesperson for India’s ruling party, told CNN last week. “We know we’re in power, we are responsible… our focus is now on how we can save lives.” So far, only six of India’s 29 states have imposed some form of Covid-19 lockdown during the new wave of infections.

Surprising Fact

According to an early Sunday report by Reuters, Indian officials ignored a forum of scientific advisors in early March who warned of a more contagious Covid-19 variant rapidly spreading around the country. Despite the calls for increased lockdown measures, officials instead held large political rallies attended by millions of maskless people ahead of the elections, Reuters reported.

Big Number

19.6 million. That’s how many Covid-19 cases have been reported in India through Sunday—the second-most among countries and behind only the United States’ count of 32.4 million.

Tangent

Speaking to CBS’ Face the Nation Sunday morning, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said the U.S. is “rushing aid” to India, including therapeutics, ventilators, personal protective equipment and rapid diagnostic tests. The U.S. is also looking to send over a portion of already purchased AstraZeneca vaccines.

Further Reading

India hits new grim record with 3,689 COVID-19 deaths in one day (Al Jazeera)

Photos Show The Distressing Severity Of India’s Covid-19 Crisis (Forbes)

India’s Daily Covid Cases Soar Past 400,000 As Crisis Deepens (Forbes) 

Enough is enough, ensure oxygen supply, Delhi High Court directs Centre (Tribune India)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami on April 08, 2021.
Enlarge / Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Miami on April 08, 2021.
Joe Raedle / Getty

Both houses of Florida’s Republican-controlled legislature have passed new legislation banning social media companies from deplatforming political candidates or censoring large journalistic organizations. Gov. Ron DeSantis has expressed support for the bill and is expected to sign it into law.

Tech companies could be fined as much as $250,000 per day if they deplatform a statewide political candidate in the state. Critics argue that the bill is likely to be struck down as unconstitutional. That seems especially likely because the bill is broad and vaguely worded.

But at least one company won’t have to worry about the legislation: Disney. A last-minute amendment to the bill provides that it doesn’t apply to a “company that owns and operates a theme park or entertainment complex”—like Disney World.

In a Friday interview, Republican Rep. Blaise Ingoglia, a bill sponsor, said the exemption was passed to make sure that the Disney+ streaming service “isn’t caught up in this.” The legislation applies to any service with more than 100 million users or at least $100 million in revenue. Disney+ has almost 100 million customers and far more than $100 million in annual revenue.

The bill focuses on conservative complaints about Big Tech

If you browse through the bill, it’s easy to connect individual provisions to conservative complaints. Most obviously, many conservatives were outraged when Twitter and Facebook banned Donald Trump after the January 6 Capitol Riot.

The bill also prohibits social media platforms from censoring “journalistic enterprises,” which are defined as an entity with more than 50,000 paid subscribers or 100,000 monthly active users. This rule may have been inspired by Facebook and Twitter’s controversial decision to censor a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s emails.

The bill also regulates social media companies “shadow banning” users, a common conservative complaint. Sites must allow users to opt out of shadow banning and apply shadow-banning policies consistently. Social media services may not shadow ban political candidates or news sites.

The law prohibits “post-prioritization” of content related to candidates for public office. And the law defines post-prioritization to mean actions that “prioritize certain content or material ahead of, below, or in a more or less prominent position than others” in a newsfeed or “search results.” Taken literally, this seems to suggest that a search engine couldn’t rank results based on factors like relevance—at least not if they included a political candidate.

Get ready for constitutional challenges

Figuring out what these rules actually mean in practice will be tricky. Facebook uses a complicated algorithm to arrange the items in the News Feed because most users have enough friends that a strictly reverse-chronological news feed would be overwhelming.

If Facebook’s algorithm decides that a picture of a friend’s cat is more engaging than a post by a political campaign and shows that cat first, would that be an illegal act of “post-prioritization?” Taken literally, this seems to be what the law says. But that would mean Facebook had to dramatically re-design the News Feed.

Some critics argue that the very concept of the bill is unconstitutional—that deciding which content to publish, and in what order, are editorial decisions that are protected by the First Amendment. But even if you don’t buy that argument—and at least one Supreme Court justice doesn’t—the breadth and vagueness of Florida’s legislation might make it vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.

In rare cases where the courts have upheld speech restrictions, they’ve generally required laws to be clearly written and “narrowly tailored” to address a compelling government interest. Even if the First Amendment allows some regulation of online moderation decisions, the Florida bill does not seem either clear or narrowly tailored.

U.S. gold exports topped imports by more than $1 billion in February, an increasingly rare occurrence, according to the latest government data available.

It would seem that American traders in the precious metal who were unnerved by Covid-19 in the spring of 2020 are increasingly confident in the U.S. economy now.

But what a ride 2020 was.

In 2020, the value of U.S. gold imports tripled over the total in 2019 and was more than double to the 2016 record. Overall U.S. gold trade — exports and imports — set a record at $55.24 billion.

What was the impact of that $34.68 billion import total in 2020?

It led to the first trade deficit in gold trade since 2003, a year when gold imports topped exports by $227.15 million. That is laughable compared to the 2020 deficit, which, at $14.12 billion, was some 60 times greater.

All of that deficit came in just five months, March through July, as the Covid-19 pandemic, confusion and polarization spread. That included the peak month of May, when the United States imported a record $8.77 billion in gold to meet the demand of U.S. buyers flocking to the safety gold offers. The deficit that month alone was $7.35 billion.

The United States traditionally imports less gold, generally in its raw form and often mined in Mexico, Canada, Colombia or elsewhere in Latin America, than it exports, which is generally refined before being flown to Switzerland, England or elsewhere.

But the difference in the value of those exports and imports, particularly in recent years, rarely tops $1 billion a month. Prior to February, it had only happened twice in the last 30 months.

What made 2020 unusual is that those gold imports were not raw gold mined in Latin America but refined gold coming from Switzerland. Five of the last seven years, the percentage of gold imports entering the United States from Switzerland was between 2.23% and 3.15%. Another two years it topped 20%. In 2020, Switzerland accounted for 42.90% of all gold imported into the United States.

While traditionally Miami International Airport is the primary entrance point for gold, given its stature as a hub for Latin America trade, its 2020 market share shriveled to 9% . New York’s JFK International Airport ballooned to 74%. Ever-so briefly, for one month, it was the nation’s top trade gateway, ahead of traditional No. 1 the Port of Los Angeles and more than 450 airports, seaports and border crossings.

Fast forward to February of 2020. As the surplus topped $1 billion, MIA was back on top of the rankings, albeit barely, with $276 million in imports compared to $270 million for JFK. Switzerland, which accounted for 43% of the total in 2020 was down to 4.5% in February. Mexico, Canada and Colombia accounted for 53% of all imports.

The biggest buyers? India, now locked in a nasty fight with Covid-19, has increased from 2.7% of the value of U.S. gold exports to 12% while the United Arab Emirates has increased from 0.45% to 9%. The United Kingdom and Switzerland each accounted for 31% in February, a 22% decrease and 2% increase, respectively.

More US agencies potentially hacked, this time with Pulse Secure exploits
Getty Images

At least five US federal agencies may have experienced cyberattacks that targeted recently discovered security flaws that give hackers free rein over vulnerable networks, the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said on Friday.

The vulnerabilities in Pulse Connect Secure, a VPN that employees use to remotely connect to large networks, include one that hackers had been actively exploiting before it was known to Ivanti, the maker of the product. The flaw, which Ivanti disclosed last week, carries a severity rating of 10 out of a possible 10. The authentication bypass vulnerability allows untrusted users to remotely execute malicious code on Pulse Secure hardware, and from there, to gain control of other parts of the network where it’s installed.

Federal agencies, critical infrastructure, and more

Security firm FireEye said in a report published on the same day as the Ivanti disclosure that hackers linked to China spent months exploiting the critical vulnerability to spy on US defense contractors and financial institutions around the world. Ivanti confirmed in a separate post that the zeroday vulnerability, tracked as CVE-2021-22893, was under active exploit.

In March, following the disclosure of several other vulnerabilities that have now been patched, Ivanti released the Pulse Secure Connect Integrity Tool, which streamlines the process of checking whether vulnerable Pulse Secure devices have been compromised. Following last week’s disclosure that CVE-2021-2021-22893 was under active exploit, CISA mandated that all federal agencies run the tool

“CISA is aware of at least five federal civilian agencies who have run the Pulse Connect Secure Integrity Tool and identified indications of potential unauthorized access,” Matt Hartman, deputy executive assistant director at CISA, wrote in an emailed statement. “We are working with each agency to validate whether an intrusion has occurred and will offer incident response support accordingly.”

CISA said it’s aware of compromises of federal agencies, critical infrastructure entities, and private sector organizations dating back to June 2020.

They just keep coming

The targeting of the five agencies is the latest in a string of large-scale cyberattacks to hit sensitive government and business organizations in recent months. In December, researchers uncovered an operation that infected the software build and distribution system of network management tools maker SolarWinds. The hackers used their control to push backdoored updates to about 18,000 customers. Nine government agencies and fewer than 100 private organizations—including Microsoft, antivirus maker Malwarebytes, and Mimecast—received follow-on attacks.
In March, hackers exploiting newly discovered vulnerability in Microsoft Exchange compromised an estimated 30,000 Exchange servers in the US and as many as 100,000 worldwide.
Microsoft said that Hafnium, its name for a group operating in China, was behind the attacks. In the days that followed, hackers not affiliated by Hafnium began infecting the already-compromised servers to install a new strain of ransomware.
Two other serious breaches have also occurred, one against the maker of the Codecov software developer tool and the other against the seller of Passwordstate, a password manager used by large organizations to store credentials for firewalls, VPNs, and other network-connected devices. Both breaches are serious, because the hackers can use them to compromise the large number of customers of the companies’ products.

Ivanti said it’s helping to investigate and respond to exploits, which the company said have been “discovered on a very limited number of customer systems.”

“The Pulse team took swift action to provide mitigations directly to the limited number of impacted customers that remediates the risk to their system, and we plan to issue a software update within the next few days,” a spokesperson added.

A pen and book resting atop a paper copy of a lawsuit.

Internet service providers today sued New York to block a state law that requires ISPs to sell $15-per-month broadband plans to low-income households.

The lawsuit was filed by lobby groups including USTelecom and CTIA–The Wireless Association, both of which count Verizon and AT&T among their members. Lobby groups for many other ISPs also joined the lawsuit, with plaintiffs including NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association, the Satellite Broadcasting & Communications Association, and the New York State Telecommunications Association. The biggest cable lobby group, NCTA, did not join the lawsuit, but a cable lobby group representing small providers—America’s Communications Association—is one of the plaintiffs suing New York.

New York enacted its cheap-broadband law two weeks ago and called it a “first-in-the-nation requirement for affordable Internet for qualifying low-income families.”

With this law, New York “seeks to regulate broadband rates,” the ISPs’ complaint said. “A provision of the recently enacted New York State Fiscal Year 2022 Budget requires wireline, fixed wireless, and satellite broadband providers—no later than June 15, 2021—to begin offering to qualifying low-income consumers high-speed broadband service at a cost to consumers of $15 per month or higher-speed broadband service at a cost to consumers of $20 per month.” ISPs claim the state requirement is preempted by federal law.

Cuomo says, “bring it on”

The lawsuit was filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of New York. The broadband lobby groups asked for preliminary and permanent injunctions preventing enforcement of the law.

“I knew giant telecom companies would be upset by our efforts to level the playing field, and right on cue, they’re pushing back,” New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said today. “Let me be abundantly clear—providing Internet in the Empire State is not a god-given right. If these companies want to pick this fight, impede the ability of millions of New Yorkers to access this essential service and prevent them from participating in our economic recovery, I say bring it on.”

The state law requires $15 broadband plans with download speeds of at least 25Mbps, with the $15 being “inclusive of any recurring taxes and fees such as recurring rental fees for service provider equipment required to obtain broadband service and usage fees.”

ISPs can alternatively comply by offering $20-per-month service with 200Mbps speeds, and price increases would be capped at two percent per year. The state is required to review download speed requirements within two years and at least once every five years thereafter to determine whether they should be raised. Minimum upload speeds are not specified by the law.

Pai’s deregulation cited by ISPs

The ISPs claimed that New York’s law conflicts with the Federal Communications Commission decision, taken under then-Chairman Ajit Pai, to deregulate the broadband industry (and eliminate net neutrality rules in the process). The FCC deregulation order declared “that broadband is an interstate information service that should not be subject to common-carrier regulation,” the lawsuit said. “The Rate Regulation conflicts with that decision, as well as the Communications Act, by compelling providers to offer broadband on a common-carrier basis: at state-set rates and terms to all eligible members of the public.”

They also claimed that the low-income broadband law “intrudes into an exclusively federal field. More than a century ago, Congress enacted legislation that occupied the field of interstate communications service and, thereby, precluded states from directly regulating those services. In violation of that long-standing law, the Rate Regulation expressly seeks to set the rates and speed of an interstate communications service. No state has ever successfully engaged in such regulation.”

States can regulate broadband through consumer-protection powers, and New York will argue that its cheap-broadband requirement is not preempted by federal law. The broadband industry similarly claimed that a California net neutrality law is preempted by federal law, but US District Judge John Mendez in February rejected that argument and refused to give the industry a preliminary injunction blocking the California law.

The California case also involves a rate-regulation claim, as ISPs argue that California’s ban on ISPs charging online services for data-cap exemptions is improper rate regulation. While Mendez found that the California law isn’t rate regulation, the ISPs may have a better case in New York where the state is requiring them to offer a specific plan at a specific price.

On the other hand, the Pai-led FCC’s abdication of its Title II regulatory authority over broadband reduced its power to preempt state laws. “[I]n any area where the Commission lacks the authority to regulate, it equally lacks the power to preempt state law,” the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit wrote in 2019, when it struck down Pai’s attempt to preempt all state net neutrality laws.

“AT&T/Verizon have sued to block NY’s broadband price regulation law and I am here to remind you the big ISPs did this to themselves,” Ernesto Falcon, senior legislative counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote on Twitter. “Lobbying to get rid of the FCCs authority invoked a counter push. They wanted to be unregulated monopolies and thought no one would stand against [them].”

Wind turbines near a coal plant.
Enlarge / Wind turbines spin as steam rises from the cooling towers of the Jäenschwalde coal-fired power plant in the distance.

Germany’s top court struck down part of the nation’s sweeping climate law, saying it violates people’s freedoms. 

By many standards, the law is aggressive, requiring the country to slash emissions 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. The country has already trimmed 35 percent of its carbon pollution, leaving just another 20 percent to be cut over the next nine years. And that’s where the court found fault with the law, saying that it left too much of the burden to future generations.

“The regulations irreversibly postpone high emission reduction burdens until periods after 2030,” the Constitutional Court wrote in a release explaining the ruling. 

The Climate Change Act, which was passed in 2019, sets reductions for six sectors of the economy, spanning energy, industry, transportation, buildings, agriculture, and everything else, including waste. Each sector has to meet an annual target, but those prescriptions end in 2030. Apart from an ill-defined end goal of net zero, the law says nothing about the period between 2031 and 2050.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of nine Germans, “some of whom are still very young,” the court noted. They claimed that the Climate Change Act would not move quickly enough to address climate change and, by not doing more, it would infringe on their freedoms and rights in the future.

A similar lawsuit in the US has been winding its way through the courts. First filed in 2015 on behalf of a group of children and teenagers, the suit accused the US government of violating the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property by not taking stronger action on climate change. A federal appeals court “reluctantly” dismissed the case, saying the plaintiffs needed to work through legislative channels, and another appeals court refused to hear the case. The plaintiffs’ lawyers have said they would take the matter to the Supreme Court.

The German suit was brought on the basis of Article 20a in the country’s constitution, known as the Basic Law, which requires the government to protect people’s freedoms and the “natural bases of life.”

The court agreed with the plaintiffs in very clear terms. Because fossil fuels are still so entwined in daily life, and because the 2019 law doesn’t adequately prepare for significant emissions reductions after 2030, “these future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom,” the court said.

“The verdict sends a very strong signal,” Peter Dabrock, a theologian and former chair of the German Ethics Council, told German broadcaster DW. “The freedom of the individual ends where the freedom of others begins,” he added, quoting the philosopher Immanuel Kant.

The court gave the German government until the end of next year to legislate how it plans to cut emissions beyond 2050.

“By way of statistics, in January 2020 there were about 75,000 immigrant visa cases pending at the National Visa Center ready for interviews. Thirteen months later, in February 2021, there were 473,000 – about six to seven times greater. The snapshot gives you an idea of how much longer the line has gotten since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s important to note, too, that this number doesn’t include the entirety of that queue. It doesn’t include cases already at embassies and consulates that have not yet been interviewed or applicants still gathering the necessary documents before they can be interviewed, and also, of course, petitions awaiting USCIS approval.” That was the assessment of the U.S. State Department in a briefing on March 1st, 2021.

Not everyone in this backlog is ready to wait indefinitely for their U.S. immigrant application to be processed. For those immigrants who cannot or will not wait any longer, one of the better choices they have is to consider a move to Canada. This is particularly so since Canada is targeting to bring in over 400,000 immigrants per year for the next three years. While Canada is open to various types of immigrants, business applicants have always been a top priority, albeit they still have to meet competitive requirements. Let’s consider three of the best Canadian business immigration programs that could be attractive to U.S. immigrants looking for other options. These can be employed either as an interim measure to secure status in Canada while awaiting a U.S. priority date for example, or as a potential permanent alternative choice to living in the United States.

1.   Start-Up Visa Program

The Start-Up Visa program allows qualified immigrant entrepreneurs to obtain permanent resident status in Canada. Innovative entrepreneurs can connect with Canadian designated organizations, such as angel investor groups, venture capital funds or business incubators and start their business in Canada with their help.

There are four main eligibility requirements:

  1. Have a qualifying business project
  2. Obtain Letter of Support from a designated organization;
  3. Meet the language requirements (Canadian Language Benchmark level 5 in all four areas of English or French in language tests).
  4. Have sufficient funds available to settle in Canada. The amount depends on the number of people on the application and it is updated each year.
  5. Intend to live in any province of Canada besides Quebec.

Apart from getting a letter of support for a designated organization, the start-up applicant must:

  1. Own a least 10% of the voting rights in the corporation.
  2. Involve up to five applicants on an application; and
  3. The applicant or applicants together with a designated organization must hold more than 50% of the total voting shares.

Permanent resident status is granted to applicants whose:

  • Start-up is incorporated and actively operated from within Canada;
  • Whose essential business operations are carried out in Canada;

Essentially the letter of support from the designated organization opens the door to permanent residence in Canada. Processing time is 12 to 16 months.

2.   Federal Self-Employed Program

The Self-Employed Class is designed for applicants who have relevant self-employment experience and are able to make a significant contribution to the cultural, artistic or athletic life of Canada. Successful applicants get permanent residence.

Each candidate is graded based on five selection criteria that award points. The minimum required is 35 points while maximum is 100 points. The criteria include education, experience, age, English or French language skills, and adaptability because of work in Canada or close relatives in the country who are permanent residents or citizens. Cultural or artistic contributions include: authors and writers, creative and performing artists, musicians, painters, sculptors and other visual artists, technical support and other jobs in motion pictures, creative designers and craftspeople. Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC) has published a full list of qualifying activities for self-employed persons.

What is relevant experience?

In order for the experience to be deemed relevant, the applicant must prove their participation in cultural or athletic events in a professional capacity at a world-class level or have been self-employed in cultural activities or athletics abroad. The applicants have to demonstrate that their experience took place within the most recent five years preceding their application. The more years of the relevant work experience the applicant has the more points such an individual will be awarded.

Processing time to permanent residence is about 34 months.

3. Intra-Corporate Transfer

Work Visa  

This work visa is for immigrants who are being sent to Canada to work for a company with a 
parent, subsidiary, branch, or affiliate abroad. Since Canada is a member of a variety of trade agreements, this visa will work for immigrants from a wide variety of countries overseas. Workers who come as intra-company transferees to temporarily perform services, either 
in a managerial or executive capacity, or 
that entail specialized knowledge for an affiliated Canadian company will be eligible for temporary work visas, similar in kind to the U.S. L-1 visa.

The employee must have been employed abroad on a full-time basis for at least one continuous year out of the last three-year period to qualify. Note that Canada requires a showing of a significant benefit to the country for the employee to be approved, but this is not necessarily that difficult to establish. Also, note that the applicant must be currently employed at the time of applying and that the Canadian employer must pay a modest employer compliance fee to obtain the approval. 
The employer is not required to obtain a labor market impact assessment unlike with other Canadian work-based applications and a specific compensation level is not prescribed, although the income must be sufficient to prevent the immigrant from becoming a public charge.

Specifics of the Process

For those applicants coming to Canada from visa exempt countries, such as the U.S. or the EU, the work permit can be obtained on arrival by merely presenting their documentation at a port of entry. For other applicants, a work visa must be obtained from a Canadian consulate. The duration of the work permit will depend on the basis on which the applicant is applying for example three years to start under CUSME. The temporary work visa can lead to Canadian permanent residence by virtue of the Canadian Experience Class (CEC) program under which an applicant can apply to stay permanently if that applicant can show they have worked in Canada in a full time position for at least one year and score enough points based on education, age, and ability to speak English or French. Processing time to permanent residence for a CEC application is ten months.

Conclusion

Applicants under all these programs and their family members must successfully pass a medical exam and get police certificates as well as demonstrate they have enough funds available for them to settle in Canada. Dependants of principal applicants are awarded the same status as the main applicant. While the programs may not be suitable for all U.S. immigrants, they may be suitable for many looking for alternatives. Since Canada is next door to the U.S. and is in many ways similar to America, Canada may be a great second choice for those who are having trouble with their American-based applications.

Uber, Lyft stocks plunge after Biden official says drivers are employees
lechatnoir / Getty

Stock in Uber is down more than 6 percent after President Joe Biden’s new labor secretary, Marty Walsh, told Reuters that drivers are employees under US labor law.

Stock in Lyft, whose business is more concentrated in the United States, is down 11 percent. DoorDash, which heavily uses contract workers for food deliveries, saw its stock fall by 8 percent. The S&P 500 stock index is up slightly.

The legal status of workers driving for these companies has become a controversial issue around the world. Uber, Lyft, and DoorDash argue that the contractor model allows them to not only operate more efficiently but also offer drivers increased flexibility. The companies argue that if they were forced to pay drivers by the hour, they’d have to not only raise fares but also restrict drivers’ hours to make sure drivers only work at times when there are enough customers to keep them busy.

But those arguments haven’t always persuaded policymakers. In 2019, California’s legislature passed legislation classifying gig workers as employees—though that law was overturned by a voter initiative last November. A New York federal judge ordered Uber to pay unemployment benefits to some Uber drivers last year. Uber faces a lawsuit over the issue in Massachusetts.

The Supreme Court in the United Kingdom ruled in February that Uber drivers are legally workers—a status between employees and contractors that doesn’t exist in the US. France’s top court ruled last year that Uber drivers are employees under French law. Spanish courts reached a similar conclusion in September. Uber is facing class-action lawsuits in Canada and South Africa over the same issue.

In the United States, the federal government and individual states each have their own laws related to worker rights. So in theory, a gig worker could be considered an employee under federal law but not state law or vice versa. Federal law also defines employees slightly differently for different types of rights and benefits—such as minimum wage protections or the right to organize. Walsh may not be able to re-classify gig workers with the stroke of a pen, but he and other Biden administration officials will have a lot of influence over how the law treats gig workers over the next four years.

For example, in 2019, the Trump-appointed general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board concluded that Uber drivers should not be treated as employees for the purposes of collective bargaining rights—a ruling that seems likely to be reversed under Biden. In March, the Biden administration proposed to reverse another rule adopted late in the Trump administration that made it easier for companies to classify workers as independent contractors.

On Wednesday, the Biden administration chose a prominent Uber critic, David Weil, to head the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division—the agency that tries to ensure companies are paying workers minimum wage and overtime benefits. The post could give him an opportunity to challenge Uber’s and Lyft’s pay practices. We interviewed Weil for a piece on the rise of contracting last year.

A $50 bill in US currency.
Getty Images | Douglas Sacha

Enrollment for $50-per-month broadband subsidies for US residents with low incomes or those who lost income during the pandemic will begin on May 12, the Federal Communications Commission announced today. The FCC also set up a new website at which people can sign up for the subsidies.

“As of May 12, 2021, eligible households will be able to enroll in the program to receive a monthly discount off the cost of broadband service from an approved provider. Eligible households can enroll through an approved provider or by visiting https://getemergencybroadband.org,” the FCC said.

The subsidies were approved by Congress in December, but it took a few months for the FCC to set up the program. The FCC had previously said enrollment would begin at the end of April. Check out this list of providers to determine whether your ISP is participating in the discount program. There’s also a “Companies Near Me” tool that will become active closer to the May 12 start date.

“The Emergency Broadband Benefit Program will provide eligible households with discounts of up to $50 a month for broadband service, and up to $75 a month if the household is on Tribal lands. It also will provide a one-time discount of up to $100 on a computer or tablet for eligible households,” the FCC said.

The subsidy will not last indefinitely. The subsidies “will end when the fund runs out of money or six months after the Department of Health and Human Services declares an end to the COVID-19 health emergency, whichever is sooner,” the program website said. “Participating households will need to opt in to continue receiving broadband services from their provider after the program ends. If a household chooses to continue receiving service after the end of the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program, they will be billed the broadband provider’s general monthly rate.”

Congress provided $3.2 billion for the subsidies, and pending legislation would add another $6 billion to the emergency fund if it’s approved.

Multiple ways to qualify

Households with incomes at or below 135 percent of federal poverty guidelines qualify for the subsidy. As explained on the “Do I Qualify?” page, the subsidy is also available to households if any member of the household:

  • Qualifies for Lifeline benefits through participation in SNAP, Medicaid, Supplemental Security Income, Federal Public Housing Assistance, or Veterans and Survivors Pension Benefit;
  • Participates in one of several Tribal-specific programs: Bureau of Indian Affairs General Assistance, Tribal Head Start (only households meeting the relevant income qualifying standard), Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Tribal TANF), Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations;
  • Experienced a substantial loss of income since February 29, 2020, with a total household income in 2020 at or below $99,000 for single filers and $198,000 for joint filers;
  • Received a federal Pell Grant in the current award year;
  • Received approval for benefits under the free and reduced-price school lunch program or the school breakfast program, including through the USDA Community Eligibility Provision, in the 2019-2020 or 2020-2021 school year; or
  • Meets the eligibility criteria for a participating provider’s existing low-income or COVID-19 program, and that provider received FCC approval for its eligibility verification process.

The FCC website explains how to apply and lists the documents people may need to provide to prove that they are eligible.

Two serious men in suits talk amongst themselves.
Enlarge / Chairman Senator Chris Coons (D-Del.) (right) speaks with Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law hearing April 27, 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is hearing testimony on the effect social media companies’ algorithms and design choices have on users and discourse.

In a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing yesterday, there was a striking change of scenery—rather than grilling the floating heads of Big Tech CEOs, senators instead questioned policy leads from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube on the role algorithms play in their respective platforms. The panel also heard from two independent experts in the field, and the results were less theatrical and perhaps more substantive.

Both Democrats and Republicans expressed concerns over how algorithms were shaping discourse on social platforms and how those same algorithms can drive users toward ever more extreme content. “Algorithms have great potential for good,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). “They can also be misused, and we the American people need to be reflective and thoughtful about that.”

The Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter execs all emphasized how their companies’ algorithms can be helpful in achieving shared goals—they are working to find and remove extremist content, for example—though all the execs admitted de-radicalizing social media was a work in progress.

In addition to policy leads from the three social media platforms, the panel heard from a couple of experts. One of them was Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Project at Harvard University. She pointed out that the main problem with social media is the way it’s built to reward human interaction. Bad actors on a platform can and often do use this to their advantage. “Misinformation at scale is a feature of social media, not a bug,” she said. “Social media products amplify novel and outrageous statements to millions of people faster than timely, local, relevant, and accurate information can reach them.”

One of Donovan’s proposed solutions sounded a lot like community cable TV stations. “We should begin by creating public interest obligations for social media timelines and newsfeeds, requiring companies to curate timely, local, relevant, and accurate information.” She also suggested that the platforms beef up their content moderation practices.

The other panel expert was Tristan Harris, president of the Center for Humane Technology and a former designer at Google. For years, Harris has been vocal about the perils of algorithmically driven media, and his opening remarks didn’t stray from that view. “We are now sitting through the results of 10 years of this psychologically deranging process that have warped our national communications and fragmented the Overton window and the shared reality we need as a nation to coordinate to deal with our real problems.”

One of Harris’s proposed solutions is to subject social media companies to the same regulations that university researchers face when they do psychologically manipulative experiments. “If you compare side-by-side the restrictions in an IRB study in a psychology lab at a university when you experiment on 14 people—you’ve got to file an IRB review. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok are on a regular, daily basis tinkering with the brain implant of 3 billion people’s daily thoughts with no oversight.

Apples and oranges

“What we need to do is compare what are the regulations and protections we apply in one domain and we’re not applying in a different domain,” Harris said.

The hearing quickly shifted to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the reform of which has been mooted by members of both parties. One bill introduced last year would require platforms with more than 10 million users to obtain permission from people before serving them algorithmically tailored content. If the companies fail to do so, they would not receive protection under Section 230. Another bill would similarly revoke Section 230 immunity if algorithms spread misinformation that leads to violence.

The panel concluded by exploring alternative business models for social media platforms, ones that wouldn’t be as reliant on algorithms to drive engagement and ad views. Harris suggested that electric utilities might be one such model. Rather than encouraging people to leave their lights on all the time—which would make them more money but work against the societywide goal of energy conservation—regulations have been set up to discourage flagrant overuse, and a portion of the profits are put into funds to ensure the sustainability of the electric grid.

“Imagine the technology companies, which today profit from an infinite amount of engagement, only made money from a small portion of that,” he said. “And the rest basically was taxed to put into a regenerative public interest fund that funded things like the fourth estate, fact checkers, researchers, public interest technologists.”