Biden is expected to keep scrutiny of tech front and center
By Cecilia Kand, David McCabe and Jack Nicas
The tech industry had it easy under President Barack Obama. Regulators brought no major charges, executives rotated in and out of the administration, and efforts to strengthen privacy laws fizzled out.
The industry will have it much harder under President-elect Joe Biden.
Bipartisan support to restrain its power has grown sharply during the Trump administration and shows no signs of going away as Democrats regain control of the White House. Biden is expected to take on the Silicon Valley giants on misinformation, privacy and antitrust, in a sharp departure from the polices pursued while he was vice president under Obama.
“The foundations of the concerns about digital platforms were developing during the Obama years, and yet the major tech issues from the Obama era are still with us and unresolved,” said Chris Lewis, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “The genie is out of the bottle, and the issues the public needs resolved are piling up without resolution.”
On the campaign trail, Biden rarely spoke about technology policy at length. But he has criticized social media companies, like Facebook, that have allowed disinformation to flourish on their sites, and he has expressed concern over power held by a handful of companies in tech and other industries.
A Biden administration is expected to pursue the antitrust lawsuit filed against Google last month, people with knowledge of his campaign said. It may also introduce more antitrust cases against Facebook and possibly Amazon and Apple, which the Trump administration has investigated for more than a year.
The Biden campaign wouldn’t comment about specific cases or investigations. But a spokesman for it, Matt Hill, said Biden would take an aggressive stance toward the industry.
“Many technology giants and their executives have not only abused their power but misled the American people, damaged our democracy and evaded any form of responsibility,” Hill said. “That ends with a President Biden.”
Biden’s clearest position on internet policy has been his call to revoke a legal shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. That safe harbor has protected Google, Facebook, Amazon and Twitter from lawsuits for hosting or removing harmful or misleading content. He hasn’t elaborated on how he would revoke the shield, a 1996 law that the tech industry will fight vigorously to defend.
Also near the top of Biden’s agenda, his advisers have said, will be the extension of broadband internet service to low-income and rural households, which has become an urgent need during the pandemic as schools have shifted online. Billions in federal funding could come from legislation or the Federal Communications Commission, which hollowed out several regulations during the Trump administration.
The FCC would also be poised to reinstall so-called net neutrality, a rule that prevented telecommunications companies from blocking or slowing internet traffic.
Hundreds of informal tech advisers, some of them current or former telecom and tech employees, have offered opinions, white papers and strategies for Biden’s campaign and possible presidency. Many of the top advisers have been proponents of strong legislation to limit the power of the tech companies.
Leading Biden’s team of tech advisers is Bruce Reed, his chief of staff when he was vice president. Reed served in recent years as general counsel for Common Sense Media, a child advocacy nonprofit in San Francisco that has lobbied for tech privacy and safety laws. Reed was instrumental in the creation of California’s privacy law in 2018.
Another top aide working on tech issues is Stef Feldman, a longtime member of Biden’s staff who led the campaign’s policy efforts. This year, she told Politico that among the issues she was tracking closely was “disparities in children’s ability to engage in remote learning due to a lack of access to technology” during the pandemic.
Biden will need to navigate a split in the Democratic Party over how aggressively to approach the tech companies. Progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island have argued that the giants should be broken up, and those lawmakers will probably fight for regulators who feel similarly. Moderates in the party have shown a reluctance to break up the companies.
Many conservatives support the antitrust investigations being led by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission. But they are likely to resist many of Biden’s tech policies, like online speech and privacy legislation that interferes in free markets. And with neither party controlling a large majority in the Senate, their opposition means that legislation could easily hit gridlock.
Biden will also face fierce pushback from the industry. In recent years, technology companies have expanded their lobbying, with Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google spending $53.6 million on it last year — more than Wall Street, pharmaceutical and energy firms.
“Tremendous political influence will be brought to bear on a Biden White House by the tech lobby and its allies,” said Jeffrey Chester, head of the Center for Digital Democracy, a privacy advocacy group. “However, it’s night and day in terms of how tech is viewed now and during the Obama years.”
Current and former tech executives and lobbyists, as well as former regulators, said that while the industry expected a Biden administration to be tough on the companies, particularly in antitrust areas, it would welcome a change from the unpredictable Trump administration.
“The Trump administration was a showbiz, and as a result no one knew what to expect,” said Tom Wheeler, a Democrat who was FCC chairman under Obama. “Silicon Valley will at least be pleased with stability knowing there is a plan, rather than a whim-of-the-moment policy creation.”
Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel and its chief of government affairs from 2009-17, said, “If you’re in Silicon Valley and you’re the head of one of these companies, you’re probably saying, ‘Biden’s not going to be easier on us — but at least it’s back to the devil that we know.’”