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What Lame Duck? Obama Isn’t Backing Down on These Tech Policies

Before Trump takes over, Congress will consider government hacking, and the Obama administration could tie up loose ends in transportation and Internet policy.
November 22, 2016
President Barack Obama

President-elect Donald Trump has given us very few specifics about how he’ll govern, so it is hard to know what to expect from his administration on technology policy, except that it is likely he’ll try to undo many of Obama’s executive actions.

But Trump won’t take office until January, and action by Congress and the Obama administration on tech policy between now and then will help set the stage for future debates. Here are four issues to watch between now and Inauguration Day.

Encryption and government hacking

The debate over whether companies like Apple and Google should be able to sell fully encrypted smartphones has been fairly quiet since legislation that would have required companies to let law enforcement access encrypted data faltered for lack of support (from the White House and others) in May. The election of Trump, who called for a boycott of Apple when it refused to help the FBI access data from an encrypted iPhone, seems to help lawmakers pushing for legislation that would weaken or ban encryption.

Congress may not address encryption again until after Trump takes office. But before then it will have to decide whether to act on another issue relevant to the broader debate over the government’s power to access data from personal devices. The Department of Justice has made two important changes to rules that determine when the government can remotely search individuals’ computers, and they will take effect December 1 if Congress doesn’t act. Last week, a bipartisan group of senators introduced a bill that would delay the rules for six months.

Streaming TV

Shortly after Trump was elected, leading Republicans in Congress urged the Federal Communications Commission to stop pursuing the politically controversial items still on its agenda. Presumably that includes the commission’s proposed new rules that would require cable companies to replace their set-top boxes with apps compatible with widely deployed platforms like Roku, Apple iOS, Android, Windows, and others. Many observers think this means that the rules are dead, though the FCC has not said that’s the case.

We also haven’t necessarily heard the last from the FCC on its net neutrality rules, which regulate Internet service providers and are supposed to promote competition. Last week, the commission informed AT&T that it might be breaking the rules by allowing users to stream its own television service, DirecTV, without having it count against their monthly data cap—a controversial practice known as “zero rating.” Will the FCC continue to push on zero rating, and will it even matter now that Trump has won and many expect his administration to overturn or ignore the rules?

Clean energy

Donald Trump has said he doesn’t believe in climate change, and that he’ll roll back President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. Neither of those things will be easy, however, and in the meantime the Obama administration continues to develop a strategy for combating climate change by vastly reducing fossil-fuel use over the next several decades. Last week the White House released a 111-page document detailing how the U.S. can make crucial, dramatic emissions cuts by 2050.

Automated vehicles

This year the Department of Transportation issued important new rules for commercial drones and published clarifying safety guidelines for self-driving cars. Sometime before the end of the administration, the department is expected to propose one more drone rule, for operations over crowds of people. It is also expected to propose a new rule on vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems for new cars.

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