What Biden means for Big Tech—and Google in particular
Throughout his campaign to win the White House, President-elect Joe Biden has been relatively quiet about the technology industry.
In a revealing January 2020 interview with the New York Times editorial board, Biden said that he wanted to revoke Section 230; suggested that he disagreed with how friendly the Obama administration became with Silicon Valley; and referred to tech executives as “little creeps” who displayed an “overwhelming arrogance.” But internet companies have also been among his campaign’s top 10 donors, technology industry insiders joined his campaign, and incoming vice president Kamala Harris has long-standing ties to Silicon Valley as a former district attorney in San Francisco.
Aside from broadband access, climate policy, and the coronavirus response, however, technology may not be high on Biden’s list of priorities, says Gigi Sohn, who served as counselor to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration.
She says he’s going to inherit other major issues that will—and should—take up his administration’s early focus. “We could talk about the evils of the internet, but you still need it,” she says. “I think making sure that every American has access to affordable broadband is more important [than regulating the Internet], because they need that to live right now ... to work ... to learn ... and to see a doctor.”
On Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the first network called the presidential election for Joe Biden, the president-elect had published a transition website detailing his administration’s agenda. It had four priority areas: covid-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Technology was mentioned briefly, but with a focus on expanding broadband internet, rather than regulation of Big Tech companies.
So what will tech regulation look like under a Biden presidency? It’s not clear, but there are several areas worth paying attention to.
The Google lawsuit will continue
In late October, the Department of Justice filed its long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google. While experts are divided on the strength of the lawsuit itself, they agree that it will continue under a Biden presidency. If anything, some argue that it will likely be strengthened, especially with several states (including New York) expected to file their own lawsuits, which may be combined with the DOJ’s effort.
Additionally, the Biden administration has “the ability to amend that complaint,” says Charlotte Slaiman, the director of competition policy at the advocacy organization Public Knowledge. “There are actually more competition concerns around Google that could be included in a broader complaint,” she says, including potential anticompetitive practices in display advertising.
Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan, president and CEO of the Internet Society, says he is “hopeful” that a Biden presidency will mean “fewer attempts to interfere in the direct operation of the internet.” This does not mean a repudiation of antitrust regulation, he adds: “There are many Democrats who would like those companies to be broken up too, so we might not see a big change in policy.”
Refocusing the debate on Section 230
Biden has argued for revoking Section 230, the section of the Communications Decency Act that shields internet companies from liability for the content that they host.
Sohn says that his actual stance is more nuanced, and that while Section 230 will continue to be an area of debate, regulators are likely to drop the enforcement actions proposed under Trump. “I can assure you that you know nobody in his leadership thinks the FCC ought to be the one interpreting the law.” Rather, she says, it falls to Congress to “fix the law” and to courts to interpret it.
On the other hand, Sohn believes that a Biden presidency will refocus the argument: rather than being driven by the Republican-led discourse charging anti-conservative bias at social media companies, for which there is no evidence, the conversation will shift to how “these companies are too big and too powerful.”
This was reflected in a series of tweets by Biden campaign deputy communications director Bill Russo, who said Facebook’s inability to deal with disinformation was “shredding the fabric of our democracy.”
If Republicans hold the Senate, or if the Democrats hold only a narrow majority there, “tech antitrust falls too far down the list of priorities,” says Alec Stapp, the technology director for the Progressive Policy Institute. In particular, he says, the need to create a coronavirus plan and a stimulus package will be the primary focus.
Over the summer, House Democrats published a 449-page report on the monopolistic practices of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Google. Charlotte Slaiman, the competition policy director at Washington, DC, advocacy organization Public Knowledge, calls it “a really big deal” and indicative, perhaps, of legislation to come.
Evan Greer, deputy policy director of the civil rights advocacy organization Fight for the Future, says that there already is a “generalized anger and anxiety about Big Tech companies’ abuses,” but that more policy is needed that can “attack the problem at its root.” This means not only breaking up monopolies, “but also ban[ning] harmful surveillance capitalist business models.”
According to some experts, like Sohn, this can be achieved through a national consumer privacy and data protection bill, similar to California’s Consumer Privacy Act—which was expanded in the state’s recent elections. “One of the things that make these companies so powerful is the fact that they have access to all our data,” she says. Limiting their access to data would effectively constrain that power, and this, she says, would be her top priority in tech regulation. In fact, she says it is already being discussed.
Bringing tech back into the tent?
The Obama administration had an infamously cozy relationship with Silicon Valley, and indications from Biden’s campaign suggest that those same relationships have helped his efforts to get elected.
Biden launched his presidential bid at a fundraiser hosted by Comcast executive David Cohen in April 2019, and raised over $25 million from internet companies, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign finance. A number of Silicon Valley insiders joined his team, including a former government affairs executive at Apple, Cynthia C. Hogan, who served as one of four cochairs of his vice presidential selection committee.
How these political donations and individual moves will affect the administration’s approach to Big Tech is still speculative, but the ties between politics and Silicon Valley have been well documented.
The Revolving Door Project, a nonprofit that tracks moves between industry and government, noted that 55 employees from Google alone joined the Obama administration in influential positions, while 197 former Obama officials joined Google after their time working for the government was over.
How the Supreme Court ruling on Section 230 could end Reddit as we know it
As tech companies scramble in anticipation of a major ruling, some experts say community moderation online could be on the chopping block.
The internet is about to get a lot safer
Europe's big tech bill is coming to fruition. Here's what you need to know.
Hyper-realistic beauty filters are here to stay
A new filter on TikTok has the internet up in arms. It's an important debate for anyone who cares about the future of social media.
When my dad was sick, I started Googling grief. Then I couldn’t escape it.
I’ve spent months trying to untrain the algorithms that were relentlessly serving me content on loss.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.