Biden Tech Policy Preview: Critical Changes at a Critical Time


Alex Stoneman, Contributor

President Joe Biden has taken office during a crucial time in United States history. On his transition site, Biden lists his day one priorities as the COVID-19 pandemic, economic recovery, racial justice, and climate change; his top priority upon taking office will not be technological policy. Nonetheless, Biden’s presidency comes with an opportunity to make major advancements in this important area. 

The eight years of the Obama administration brought significant changes in the sphere of tech policy, including particularly friendly relations with Silicon Valley. However, in an interview with the New York Times editorial board in early 2020, Biden distanced himself from his former running mate. He cited tech policy as one of the areas in which he disagreed with Obama, going as far as to call tech company executives “little creeps.” Despite these claims, Biden notably left most technological issues untouched on the campaign trail. 

All the while, Biden received campaign support from both sides of the Big Tech debate. Google parent Alphabet, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple were among Biden’s top ten donors, and Silicon Valley collectively contributed around $14 million to Democratic efforts in the 2020 election. On the other hand, some of Big Tech’s biggest critics joined forces to organize fundraisers for the president. Among those trying to sway Biden against Silicon Valley were politicians like Elizabeth Warren and activists like Facebook investor Roger McNamee. 

Further muddling his stances, Biden has surrounded himself with people with conflicting histories on Big Tech. As she advanced through Bay Area politics, Vice President Kamala Harris garnered a great deal of support from nearby Silicon Valley. These close ties led to her “largely hands-off approach” with Big Tech companies, especially as their power grew during her tenure as California attorney general. However, Biden recently chose Bruce Reed, a staunch critic of Big Tech, as his top technology advisor. Reed, who previously served as Biden’s chief of staff, helped craft the 2018 California Consumer Privacy Act, a landmark online privacy law. 

With all of this in mind, the Biden administration’s plans to take on tech issues are far from certain. Despite this, it is important to consider some of the president’s likely stances on these issues, as well as their potential implications. 

A commitment to “universal broadband” represents the only mention of technology on Biden’s transition site. According to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), almost 30 million Americans lack high-speed internet, with many of those living in areas and tribal lands. As the COVID-19 pandemic grows and everything from education to healthcare moves online, the importance of internet access increases daily; Biden would attempt to address this need upon taking office. 

In October 2020, a 16-month investigation culminated in a Department of Justice lawsuit against Google, accusing the tech giant of holding an illegal monopoly on online searches and advertising. Experts agree that Biden will allow the landmark antitrust lawsuit to continue. From that point, the president could choose to pursue the case as it stands right now or amend the lawsuit to add new, broader claims. 

In either case, consumers will not see any significant changes to their favorite search engine, especially in the short term. The legal battle will likely carry on for the entire duration of Biden’s first term in office, and although a Google breakup is a possible outcome, it is far from likely. In the future, users may see additional search options on mobile devices, as the mobile search market is a focal point of the lawsuit. For example, during device setup, one may have to manually set a default search engine, a current requirement in the European Union. 

A similarly-debated, but lesser-known aspect of tech policy hangs in the balance under Biden as well. In the previously-mentioned New York Times interview, Biden expressed a desire to immediately revoke Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This provision lets tech companies decide how to regulate content on their platform and protects them from liability for what their users post. This may seem trivial, but Section 230 has been called “the 26 words that created the internet,” due to the power it gives Big Tech companies. 

Repealing Section 230 is actually a policy point on which Biden and President Trump agree; people on both sides of the aisle have recently been critical of the provision, but for different reasons. Republicans believe Section 230 allows social media sites to muzzle right-leaning voices. On the other hand, Democrats argue it allows for the rampant spread of misinformation. 

Biden’s repeal of Section 230, while still just a possible outcome, could fundamentally change the legal landscape of social media. By removing the liability shield, companies would become responsible for all of the content users post on their sites. In turn, lawsuits would become much easier and more frequent. To avoid massive legal burdens, platforms like Facebook and Twitter would likely begin removing content much more aggressively. Moreover, for those same financial reasons, smaller tech companies and startups would be nearly doomed.

Another policy with major implications on everyday internet users subject to change under Biden is net neutrality. The signature policy of President Trump’s Federal Communications Commission was the 2018 Restoring Internet Freedom Order, which reclassified broadband providers as Title I services and repealed net neutrality. Essentially, net neutrality mandates that internet service providers (ISPs) treat all traffic equally; the 2018 order permitted ISP discrimination between different users, types of content, websites, or any other factor. 

Biden’s FCC plans indicate that he wishes to return to the Obama-era policy of net neutrality. Last month, he appointed Mignon Clyburn, a former member of the Obama FCC, to his telecom transition team; given her experience as acting chairwoman, she is the frontrunner to chair the FCC after Biden is inaugurated. Other possible appointees include current Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, Anna Gomez, and fellow transition team member Edward Smith. Regardless of who gets the nod, all four potential nominees support net neutrality, which bodes well for the policy’s return. 

Net neutrality safeguards against the abuse of users who are increasingly reliant on their services. While there have not been any major changes since its repeal, the return of net neutrality would protect against ISPs requiring fees to access certain sites at certain speeds. For example, Comcast wouldn’t be able to charge premiums to access YouTube or slow down Netflix data rates in favor of their own streaming service, as international precedent suggests. For consumers, this means broadband bills will stay the same, if not decrease, and access to all parts of the internet will remain secure. 

All in all, while the president has a full agenda upon taking office, Biden is positioned to make a lasting impact on the United States’ technological policy. At a critical point in history, these decisions must be made with the best interest of Americans in mind.

Photo Credit: “programming language codes” by Markus Spiske