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FTC sets its sights on the health data market



FTC sets its sights on the health data market

With Carmen Paun

AN FTC FIRST — The Federal Trade Commission is cracking down on companies sharing health data in new ways that could have implications for online business models, POLITICO’s Ruth Reader reports.

The FTC said Wednesday it had reached an agreement with GoodRx on a fine and remedies after the prescription discount site and telehealth provider shared customers’ health data with Google, Facebook and other third parties.

It’s the commission’s first enforcement of its 2009 Health Breach Notification Rule. Pending a court’s agreement, the decision could upend business models that rely on selling or using the data.

In the agreement with GoodRx, the agency filed a proposed order to levy a $1.5 million fine and enforce the remedies with the federal court in the northern district of California, which still must approve the agreement.

The FTC said GoodRx was unfair in its handling of customer data — alleging the company falsely claimed it complied with HIPAA and also shared information when it pledged not to. The company also had no internal processes to protect, or limit third-party access to, consumer health data, the commission said.

Though GoodRx has agreed to settle, it didn’t admit wrongdoing. The company also said it didn’t believe the FTC action would materially impact the business.

“We believe this is a novel application of the Health Breath Notification Rule by the FTC. We used Facebook tracking pixels to advertise in a way that we feel was compliant with regulations and that remains common practice for many websites,” the company said in a statement.

Still, the FTC is signaling heightened interest in the issue, data privacy experts say.

“What they’re doing is sending a warning shot across the digital bow of the online advertising industry saying, ‘Hey, these things are unfair, we’re watching, and you should not be using this health information in the way it’s being used,’” said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for digital privacy and consumer protections online.

WELCOME TO THURSDAY PULSE. One bill to keep an eye on: a proposition to make roasted chile New Mexico’s official state aroma. What should your state’s official aroma be? Send ideas — and health news — to [email protected] and [email protected].

TODAY ON OUR PULSE CHECK PODCAST, Erin Schumaker talks with Megan Messerly about the millions of Americans who were allowed to remain covered by Medicaid during the pandemic and what could happen now that Congress has given states the go-ahead to reevaluate who’s still eligible for those health insurance benefits.

AMERICA DOESN’T HAVE THE CAPACITY TO IDENTIFY PANDEMIC ORIGINS, EXPERTS TELL CONGRESS — The United States doesn’t have the combination of scientific research, access to samples databases, domestic operational plans and international partnerships that can reliably identify the source of disease outbreaks such as the coronavirus pandemic, five experts told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing Wednesday, Carmen reports.

Using genetic sequencing and analyzing blood samples stored in databases are technologies that have proven useful in detecting the origin of other diseases in the past, but a lack of access to such databases hinders origin investigation, Karen Howard, the acting chief scientist at the Government Accountability Office told the subcommittee on oversight and investigations.

International agreements should be developed to standardize sample databases that could help in researching a virus’ origin, she said, adding that the U.S. should also develop a detailed national strategy for investigating a pandemic’s beginning, she said.

One single office in the U.S. government should coordinate the work of several agencies in identifying where an outbreak started, added Tom Inglesby, the director of the Center for Health Security at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former adviser on the White House Covid-19 Response Team.

Why it matters: Inglesby said the ability to investigate a viral outbreak could be a form of deterrence against enemies who would want to use biological weapons against the U.S.

The hearing was the first for this Congress that focused on Covid’s origins, an issue that the Republican House majority has made a priority. Most questions from the Republican subcommittee members focused on whether it could be demonstrated that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan virology lab.

The health experts testifying said the current data doesn’t clearly trace the virus to the Wuhan lab, but several studies link it to a live animal market in that Chinese city.

Michael Imperiale, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of Michigan, warned against politicizing the debate and discouraged scientists from getting involved in such research. Some of his colleagues studying viruses with pandemic potential, he said, have received death threats from people who mistrust the researcher’s work, suspecting them of deliberately engineering viruses to become more transmissible or dangerous.

“We must be careful not to throw sand in the gear that slows our progress, dissuades our scientists or discourages our young people from being a part of our scientific system,” he told lawmakers.

WYDEN WANTS INFO ON IRA REBATES — Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) sent a letter Wednesday to CMS Administrator Chiquita Brooks-LaSure asking for details about the Medicare Part D and Part B inflation rebate provisions included in the Inflation Reduction Act.

The information requested includes a timeline for implementing rebates, an explanation of how those rebates will be calculated and a plan to promptly penalize companies that increase prices faster than the inflation rate.

ONCDP TO THE CABINET? A bipartisan group of 55 lawmakers asked President Joe Biden in a letter Wednesday to add the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy to a Cabinet-level position.

The lawmakers wrote that, amid the opioid epidemic, the president should announce the change at next week’s State of the Union address and push ending the crisis as a top priority.

IN CASE OF DEFAULT — The largest House Republican caucus worked on a list of ideas for fiscal reform, including an item on Medicare, POLITICO’s Caitlin Emma and Olivia Beavers report.

Though Speaker Kevin McCarthy said earlier this week that Medicare and Social Security were off the table for cuts, the group is considering a way to continue payments to beneficiaries should the U.S. default on its debt.

FDA EMPLOYEES WON’T BE FIRED OVER FORMULA CRISIS — As the FDA looks to major reforms in the wake of the infant formula crisis, the agency’s commissioner said employees won’t be fired or reassigned in the changes, POLITICO’s Meredith Lee Hill reports.

The announcement came as Commissioner Robert Califf rolled out his “new, transformative vision” of the main agency tasked with overseeing food safety in the U.S., though he didn’t include specific plans to address breakdowns around infant formula.

Still, Califf pointed to some past “leadership changes.” His remarks come just days after senior FDA foods official Frank Yiannas’ resignation last week. In his resignation letter, Yiannas called for structural reforms in the troubled division.

“But the short answer is no one’s going to be reassigned or fired because of the infant formula situation,” Califf told reporters.

PANDEMIC PREP DEAL DETAILS — The World Health Organization shared plans for an international agreement aimed at improving pandemic preparations, Carmen reports.

The plan lays out ideas to avoid the failures from the Covid-19 pandemic, such as inequitable vaccine distribution.

The proposal would require countries to allow WHO rapid-response teams access to their territories to assess and support efforts to combat emerging outbreaks — after China didn’t grant fast access to international experts to the Wuhan virology lab at the pandemic’s outset.

The draft also demands that countries support temporary waivers of intellectual property rights on those products and requires manufacturers that received public funding for their development to waive their rights. That sort of provision, hotly contested through the Covid era, will likely be fought by pharmaceutical companies.

Governments will start negotiations on the agreement at a meeting later this month, with discussions continuing for the next year.

FIRST IN PULSE: Andrea Harris, previously chief of staff to Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) and two HHS assistant secretaries, will join Protect Our Care as director of policy programs.

Jean Accius is now president and CEO of Creating Healthier Communities. He previously was SVP of global thought leadership for AARP.

The New York Times reports that vaccine makers kept well over $1 billion in prepayments for Covid shots for developing countries.

Kaiser Health News writes about nursing home owners funneling cash out of facilities during the pandemic.

The Washington Post reports on research about the cancer risk associated with ultra-processed food.

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Biden White House urged Meta to crack down on ‘vaccine-skeptical’ content on WhatsApp private chat platform



Biden White House urged Meta to crack down on 'vaccine-skeptical' content on WhatsApp private chat platform

Newly-released communications between the Biden administration and Meta show an effort to crack down on so-called “vaccine-skeptical” content shared on the private communications platform WhatsApp. 

Independent journalist David Zweig reported on Friday that the White House went beyond Twitter to curb COVID-related posts. Emails obtained through discovery from the ongoing Missouri v Biden legal battle show email exchanges from the White House to the tech giant began just days after President Biden took office. 

Zweig stressed that unlike Facebook and Instagram, both of which are owned by Meta, WhatsApp is an encrypted direct messaging platform, Citing Meta, “90% of WhatsApp messages are from one person to another. And groups typically have fewer than 10 people.” 


In an email from March 2021, Rob Flaherty, the White House director of digital strategy, pressed Meta executives how they were “measuring reduction of harm” on WhatsApp, insisting they must have a “good mousetrap” to observe what encrypted content was being shared on the platform.

The Biden White House pressured Meta to moderate COVID vaccine content on its private communications platform WhatsApp. (Rafael Henrique/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Flaherty also offered then-White House COVID senior adviser Andrew Slavitt, telling Meta he’d be “willing to get on the phone” a “couple of times per week if [it’s] necessary.” 

“Because of WhatsApp’s structure, targeted suppression or censorship of certain information did not appear possible. Instead, much of the aim of the content moderation on WhatsApp, therefore, was to ‘push’ information to users,” Zweig wrote. “The service partnered with the World Health Organization, UNICEF, and more than 100 governments and health ministries to send Covid-19 updates and vaccine-related messages to users. The company created initiatives such as a WhatsApp chatbot in Spanish to aid in making local vaccination appointments.”


Days after the previous email, Flaherty continued pressing Meta about moderating content on WhatsApp. He was told that Meta’s only moderation option would be “content-agnostic product interventions” which typically monitoring messages “that didn’t originate from a close contact” which it deemed “were more likely to contain misinformation” and reduce its “forwards” as a result. 

WhatsApp one of Meta's prominent apps including Facebook, Instagram and Messenger.

WhatsApp one of Meta’s prominent apps including Facebook, Instagram and Messenger. (Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Flaherty asked Meta how it “measured success,” to which an employee replied by pointing to the “reduction of forwards” and that it bans accounts “that engage in mass marketing or scam behaviors – including those who seek to exploit COVID-19 misinformation.” The employee also noted that “3 billion” COVID-related messages were sent by “governments, nonprofits and international organizations” to citizens via WhatsApp chatbots “and over 300 million messages have been sent over COVID-19 vaccine helplines” during the first quarter of 2021. 


“In one of the follow up exchanges, Flaherty seemed dissatisfied with the response, and again pressed Meta to take action on vaccine hesitancy,” Zweig reported. ‘I care mostly about what actions and changes you’re making to ensure you’re not making our country’s vaccine hesitancy problem worse,’ he wrote. ‘I still don’t have a good, empirical answer on how effective you’ve been at reducing the spread of vaccine-skeptical content and misinformation to vaccine fence sitters.’”

In the email, Flaherty dinged Facebook for not having implemented an “algorithmic shift” in election-related content to prevent the Jan. 6 “insurrection” from being plotted on the platform, suggesting he doesn’t want such laid-back content moderation to occur on WhatsApp. 

The Biden White House has repeatedly urged Big Tech companies to moderate COVID-related content.

The Biden White House has repeatedly urged Big Tech companies to moderate COVID-related content. (DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images)

“Flaherty wanted empirical data about the effectiveness of reducing ‘vaccine-skeptical content’ on a platform composed of non-public messages. He wanted supposed misinformation on a private messaging app to be ‘under control.’ What, exactly, was he hoping to get Meta to do?” Zweig wrote. “It was obvious from the start that WhatsApp’s interface didn’t allow for the granular control Flaherty appeared to desire. And his smiley face response suggests he well understood this. Yet he kept badgering the Meta executives anyway.”

Zweig continued, “The exchanges about WhatsApp are arresting not because of what Meta ultimately did or did not do on the platform—since the company’s options for intervention appear to be limited—but because efforts to moderate content on a private messaging service was a continued interest for a White House official at all… Fortunately, targeted censorship on a private messaging app is still out of government reach.”


Fox News Digital asked the White House whether it had any concerns that such interactions with Meta have any First Amendment implications. The White House did not immediately respond.

Zweig, author of the “Silent Lunch” Substack newsletter, went viral in December with his contribution to the Twitter Files series, exposing how the White House under both President Biden and President Trump leaned on Twitter to moderate COVID-related content. 

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Mark Zuckerberg, wife Priscilla Chan welcome third baby girl



Mark Zuckerberg, wife Priscilla Chan welcome third baby girl

From Facebook to family of five!

Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan announced on Friday that their third baby girl arrived.

“Welcome to the world, Aurelia Chan Zuckerberg!” the couple wrote via Instagram. “You’re such a little blessing.”

Zuckerberg and his former Harvard University classmate previously welcomed daughters Max, 7, and August, 5, in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Priscilla Chan introduces daughter Aurelia
The couple named their daughter Aurelia.

The entrepreneur, 38, mentioned the little ones in his September 2022 Instagram post announcing his 38-year-old wife’s pregnancy.

“Lots of love,” Zuckerberg captioned a smiling selfie with his hand on Chan’s budding belly.

“Happy to share that Max and August are getting a new baby sister next year!”

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg debuted Chan’s baby bump in September via Instagram.
Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan
“Lots of love,” he captioned the post.
Getty Images for Breakthrough Pr

The couple met in 2003 at a frat party while in line for the bathroom.

“He was this nerdy guy who was just a little bit out there,” Chan told the New Yorker in 2010, joking that Zuckerberg had a “nerdy, computer-science appeal.”

On their first date, the Meta CEO told Chan that he would rather go out with her than “finish his take-home midterm.”

Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Max and August
The couple previously welcomed Max and August in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

The sentiment “appalled” the “the type-A first child,” the pediatrician told “Today” show co-hosts in 2014.

The couple got married in 2012, and Zuckerberg called Chan the “most important” part of his life in a commencement speech at their alma mater five years later.

While trying to start a family, the doctor struggled to conceive and suffered three miscarriages.

Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg
Zuckerberg wed the pediatrician in 2012.

Zuckerberg called the pregnancy losses “a lonely experience” in a 2015 Facebook post.

As the CZI co-founder and co-CEOs’ family began growing, Zuckerberg told North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University students that he had been changed in a “pretty dramatic way” by parenthood.

“The thing that I’m most proud of and the thing that brings me the most happiness is my family,” he gushed in 2017.

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TikTok hearing obscures wider issue of Americans’ online privacy



TikTok hearing obscures wider issue of Americans' online privacy


For a brief moment in a five-hour House hearing on Thursday, TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew let his frustration show. Asked if TikTok was prepared to split off from its Chinese parent company if ordered to do so by the U.S. government, to safeguard Americans’ online data, Chew went on offense.

“I don’t think ownership is the issue here. With a lot of respect: American social companies don’t have a great record with privacy and data security. I mean, look at Facebook and Cambridge Analytica,” Chew said, referring to the 2018 scandal in which Facebook users’ data was found to have been secretly harvested years earlier by a British political consulting firm.

He’s not wrong. At a hearing in which TikTok was often portrayed as a singular, untenable threat to Americans’ online privacy, it would have been easy to forget that the country’s online privacy problems run far deeper than any single app. And the people most responsible for failing to safeguard Americans’ data, arguably, are American lawmakers.

U.S. government issues historic $5 billion fine against Facebook for repeated privacy violations

The bipartisan uproar over TikTok’s Chinese ownership stems from the concern that China’s laws could allow its authoritarian government to demand or clandestinely gain access to sensitive user data, or tweak its algorithms to distort the information its young users see. The concerns are genuine. And yet the United States has failed to bequeath Americans most of the rights it now accuses TikTok of threatening.

While the European Union has far-reaching privacy laws, Congress has not agreed on national privacy legislation, leaving Americans’ online data rights up to a patchwork of state and federal laws. In the meantime, reams of data on Americans’ shopping habits, browsing history and real-time location, collected by websites and mobile apps, is bought and sold on the open market in a multi-hundred-billion-dollar industry. If the Chinese Communist Party wanted that data, it could get huge volumes of it without ever tapping TikTok. (In fact, TikTok says it has stopped tracking U.S. users’ precise location, putting it ahead of many American apps on at least one important privacy front.)

That point was not entirely lost on the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which convened Thursday’s hearing. Last year, their committee became the first to advance a comprehensive data privacy bill, hashing out a hard-won compromise. But it stalled amid qualms from House and Senate leaders.

Likewise, worries about TikTok’s addictive algorithms, its effects on teens’ mental health, and its hosting of propaganda and extreme content are common to its American rivals, including Google’s YouTube and Meta’s Instagram. Congress has not meaningfully addressed those, either.

And if Chinese ownership is the issue, TikTok has plenty of company there, as well: A glance at Apple’s iOS App Store rankings earlier this week showed that four of the top five apps were Chinese-owned: TikTok, its ByteDance sibling CapCut, and the online shopping apps Shein and Temu.

The enthusiasm for cracking down on TikTok in particular is understandable. It’s huge, it’s fast-growing, and railing against it allows lawmakers to position themselves simultaneously as champions of American children and tough on China. Banning it would seem to offer a quick fix to the problems lawmakers spent five hours on Thursday lamenting.

And yet, without an overhaul of online privacy laws, it ignores that those problems exist on all the other apps that haven’t been banned.

“In most ways, they’re like most of the Big Tech companies,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said of TikTok after the hearing. “They can use Americans’ data any way they want.” She and several other committee members said they’d prefer to address TikTok as part a broader privacy bill, rather than a one-off ban.

But the compromises required to pass big legislation can be politically costly, while railing against TikTok costs nothing. If Chew can take any consolation from Thursday’s hearing, it’s that congressional browbeating of tech companies are far more common than congressional action against them.

For an example, he has only to look at the one he raised in that moment of frustration: For all the hearings, all the grilling of Mark Zuckerberg over Cambridge Analytica, Russian election interference and more, Facebook is still here — and now Congress has moved on to a new scapegoat.

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