President Joe Biden is inheriting tricky tech questions including how to rein in powerful digital superstars, what to do about Chinese technology and how to bring more Americans online.
Here’s a glimpse at opportunities and challenges in technology policy for the new Biden administration:
Restraining tech powers
Under the Trump administration, there were investigations, lawsuits and noisy squabbles over the power of Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and other tech companies. Tech giants can expect more of the same under Biden and a Congress narrowly controlled by Democrats.
Government lawsuits that accused Google and Facebook of breaking the law to become successful will be handed off to the new administration, which is expected to continue them. More lawsuits could come, too, possibly making it harder for Big Tech to continue as is.
On Tuesday, a top Justice Department lawyer appointed by former President Donald Trump agreed with many of the prescriptions from congressional Democrats who said America’s top four tech superpowers are harmful monopolies. The speech showed that hating Big Tech is one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement.
This was a central internet dispute long before Facebook and Twitter locked Trump’s accounts after he incited a mob. The question of what, if anything, the government should do about online expression is just getting trickier.
This policy fight has fixated on a bedrock 1996 internet law, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives websites some legal protection for what their users do. It means Yelp can let people leave reviews and screen them for fraud or nastiness, without being legally accountable to unhappy restaurant owners. And yet, the law also protects websites where people post sexually explicit photos of their exes without permission.
Democrats and Republicans both have misgivings about Section 230, but not for the same reasons. Those on the right have said that the law gives internet companies too much leeway to intervene in what people say online. Democrats, including Biden, have said that internet companies have too much cover not to intervene in harmful posts.
The uneasiness with Section 230 increases the likelihood of at least some modifications. Those might include rescinding the legal protections for sites that host misinformation about voting or forcing companies to be clear about how their posts are moderated.
Tech and China
The Trump administration’s fumbling over Chinese apps including TikTok was a missed opportunity to address an important question: What should the U.S. government do about globally important technology from countries that don’t share America’s values?
Biden seems to agree with the Trump administration’s concerns about the ambitions of China in tech and other areas, but he hasn’t said much beyond aiming for a more consistent and coherent policy. Biden has also expressed support for more government investment in essential U.S. technology to counter China’s tech ambitions.
The pandemic highlighted a persistent gap between Americans who can get access to and afford internet service and the millions who can’t, particularly in low-income or rural households.
Biden’s priorities mention “universal broadband,” but he hasn’t specified how to get there. The Washington Post reported that Biden’s advisers want to enhance E-Rate, a program to help schools and libraries provide internet access.
Biden’s economic revival plan includes suggestions to “launch the most ambitious effort ever” to modernize U.S. cyberdefenses. Maybe this is the year for a federal data privacy law? And there are rifts among Democrats on special employment treatment for “gig” workers.
The most urgent priorities for the new administration are to end the pandemic and help Americans recover from the damage. But how the U.S. government handles these complex tech questions will also have a big effect on Americans and others around the world.