Biden as president: What it will mean for tech
This story is part of , CNET’s coverage of the voting in November and its aftermath.
Joe Biden will take the oath of office as president of the United States on Wednesday, unseating Donald Trump, who since November has falsely claimed that the election was rigged. Biden’s inauguration will come exactly two weeks after the violent attack on the US Capitol, when a mob of Trump supporters stormed the building and threatened members of Congress, who were gathered to certify the election for Biden.
The House of Representatives voted one week later to impeach Trump for the second time in his presidency, charging him with “high crimes and misdemeanors” for his role in allegedly inciting the insurrection, resulting in the deaths of five people. Trump will face a trial in the Senate after the inauguration.
The biggest challenge facing Biden as he takes office is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already claimed the lives of nearly 400,000 Americans. Biden has said his top priority will be vaccinating Americans against the deadly virus. The goal is to administer 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office. With current vaccines requiring two shots, that would cover 50 million Americans.
On Friday, he said he’ll COVID-19 vaccines to millions of Americans.to help get
The pandemic has pushed technology issues, including net neutrality, rural broadband and online privacy, to the sideline. But the violence at the Capitol — fueled by disinformation spreading on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — has many lawmakers looking at ways to rein in the tech giants.
Twitter and Facebook each suspended Trump’s accounts for incendiary comments following the riot, but some lawmakers said it was too little, too late.
Democrats, including misinformation about the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election, as well as, interference by foreign countries in the election. Republicans, led by Trump, allege their speech is being censored by social media sites. The companies strongly deny the claim.
Both sides say these companies have grown too big.
The COVID-19 crisis, which has led to a rapid adoption of telemedicine and virtual education, has also shined a light on other pressing tech issues, such as the digital divide that prevents millions of Americans from accessing high-speed internet.
Even though tech policy didn’t dominate election issues, Biden’s presence in the Oval Office over the next four years will have a major influence on the sector, including infrastructure policy on broadband deployment and national security issues involving China. The president and his team will also play a role in how to handle the growth and influence of social media giants. Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies are already feeling the heat from politicians on both sides of the political aisles.
So far, Biden has remained relatively quiet on tech issues. But it is clear that he sees science and technology as critically important to the nation. On Saturday, he introduced his nominee for director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy and announced plans to elevate the role of presidential science adviser to be a member of the Cabinet for the first time.
Biden made history with his pick of Sen. Kamala Harris as his No. 2. Harris will become the first woman, and the first woman of color, to hold the office of vice president. Harris, who hails from California, will likely be seen by the industry as more a friend than a foe because of her ties to Silicon Valley. But it’s hard to imagine Big Tech would enjoy the same kind of cozy relationship it had during the Obama administration.
Here’s a look at where Biden stands on the issues.
One of the biggest issues facing tech companies under President Biden will be reforms to antitrust law meant to rein in the biggest tech companies.
A scathing 449-page congressional report detailing abuses of market power by Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook likely foreshadows troubles ahead for tech firms under a Biden administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress. The report put together by a panel from the House Judiciary Committee laid out a road map for Congress to put the brakes on the dominance of the nation’s four largest tech companies.
Google and Facebook are already facing multiple lawsuits from federal and state law enforcement as well as regulatory agencies. And things could get worse for these companies as Democrats emboldened and angered by the insurrection on the Capitol may push for more aggressive enforcement and changes to antitrust laws that would make it easier for the federal government to bring cases against these companies or to even break them up.
It’s unclear how far a Biden Justice Department will be willing to go in terms of antitrust enforcement and reforms. While Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Biden has said it’s too early to talk about breaking up companies and instead has leaned toward regulation as a way to curb their power.
Still, it’s clear that the US government has put big tech under more intense scrutiny as attitudes toward Silicon Valley companies have changed dramatically from just a few years ago, when Google and Facebook were hailed as American success stories. Now, that dominance has turned against these companies.
Liability protections: Section 230
There isn’t much that Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill agree on. Reforming Section 230, a decades old law, is on that short list. The law protects Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech giants from lawsuits over the content their users post on their platforms.
Last year, Zuckerberg, Pichai and Dorsey appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee to discuss the law, although much of the talk focused on lawmaker complaints rather than substantive reforms. Biden has been an outspoken critic of Section 230, which is part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act.
More on the election:
Democrats, like Biden, say Facebook and other companies are getting off too easy when bad actors use their platforms to disseminate disinformation and hate speech, as well as interfere in elections.
Biden told The New York Times that Section 230 “immediately should be revoked” for Facebook and other platforms. “It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy,” he said.
Meanwhile, Republicans accuse social media giants of censoring conservatives online. In the weeks leading up to the election, Trump tweeted “REPEAL SECTION 230!!!” after Facebook and Twitter slowed the spread of a New York Post story that contained unverified claims concerning Biden’s son.
In the final days of the administration, the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission decided not to pursue writing new regulations for Section 230 that would penalize companies for censoring content, something Trump has specifically pushed the agency to do. A Biden Administration is likely to put the kibosh on the FCC’s efforts to write rules to police social media companies. Instead, this issue will likely be handled by Congress.
The largest tech companies say they’re onboard with some reforms to Section. 230 — with some caveats. At a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that social media platforms “have responsibilities and it may make sense for there to be liability for some of the content that is on the platform.”
At the same hearing, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey suggested regulations that could require companies to make their moderation processes more transparent. He also said companies could develop clear ways for users to appeal their decisions on content moderation and give users more choices in how algorithms sort their content.
Still, Dorsey cautioned lawmakers not to go too far in their reforms. And he warned that a heavy-handed approach could especially stifle smaller startups.
Unlike some of the other Democrats who ran for president in 2020, Biden hasn’t said much about net neutrality. Bernie Sanders and Warren, by contrast, expressed early on in their candidacies strong support for the principle.
Still, it’s likely that net neutrality will come back en vogue under Biden, especially since Democrats won two run-off Senate seats in Georgia. These victories in the Senate essentially split the votes in the Senate 50-50 with Vice President Harris as the tie-breaking vote. This should make it much easier for Biden to push through his cabinet picks in the Senate and other positions that need Senate approval, such as a new head of the Federal Communications Commission. With a 3-2 Democratic majority on the FCC, it’s expected the agency will push to reinstate Obama-era protections.
A spokesman for Biden’s campaign said previously that the president-elect is a supporter of strong net neutrality protections.
“As Barack Obama’s vice president, Joe Biden was proud to push for net neutrality and see the [Federal Communications Commission] take direct action to keep the internet open and free for all Americans,” the spokesman said in a statement. Biden, he said, was outraged at seeing the Open Internet Rule reversed under the Trump administration.
But Biden’s track record tells a different story. When he was a senator, he didn’t co-sponsor or support net neutrality legislation, including the 2007 Internet Freedom Preservation Act. Other prominent Democrats, including then-Sens. Obama and Hillary Clinton, were co-sponsors of that legislation, as was Sanders.
Biden also has a close relationship with Comcast executives, who’ve lobbied against strict net neutrality regulations. Comcast Senior Vice President David Cohen hosted Biden’s first fundraiser after he announced his bid for president.
“Biden’s record on net neutrality is concerning, to say the least,” said Evan Greer, deputy director for the grassroots organization Fight for the Future. “Companies like Comcast and Verizon have contributed enormous amounts of money to both Democrats and Republicans over the years.”
But those ties aren’t concrete evidence of Biden’s stance. It’s worth noting that Obama also held fundraisers with Comcast before eventually calling, in a YouTube video, for stricter regulation of broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. These stricter regulations treated broadband like a public utility, such as the old-style telephone network.
The political landscape has changed on net neutrality since Biden served in the Senate. Net neutrality under Title II is strongly supported both by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which means that going against strong protections would likely defy a core principle of the party’s current platform.
During his campaign, Biden called rebuilding the middle class in America “the moral obligation of our time.” He sees revitalizing rural America as a cornerstone of that effort. A big part of his rural economic development strategy is investing $20 billion in getting broadband access to communities that don’t have it. He’s also called for partnering with municipal utilities to bring fiber broadband connections to communities across rural America.
“High-speed broadband is essential in the 21st century economy,” Biden’s rural policy reads. “At a time when so many jobs and businesses could be located anywhere, high-speed internet access should be a great economic equalizer for rural America, not another economic disadvantage.”
Linda Moore, the president and CEO of the TechNet lobbying group, says the COVID-19 pandemic has “laid bare” the extent of the digital divide.
“It’s hard for businesses to keep going and to grow the way they should without broadband access,” Moore said in an interview. “It’s heartbreaking to see students having to go to their local businesses, or back to their schools after the schools have shuttered just so they can try to get WiFi access to do their homework. It shouldn’t be that way in America.”
Biden’s campaign said the $20 billion in broadband infrastructure funding is meant to help close those gaps.
The digital divide is an issue Republicans recognize as well. The White House has worked with the FCC on the Rural Digital Opportunity program, which reallocates $20.4 billion in funding to subsidize broadband infrastructure in underserved areas. Trump has also included high-speed internet access as part of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
China and tariffs
Democrats across the board have been critical of Trump’s tariff war with China, which has affected imports on a wide range of tech products. Tariffs are taxes paid by importers on goods arriving from foreign countries, and Trump has used them to pressure the Chinese government on broader trade issues. Two rounds of tariffs, including a 15% tariff on products like phones, laptops and tablets, have gone into effect. Another round was avoided in a “phase one” trade deal.
On the campaign trail, Democratic candidates, including Biden and Harris, were light on specifics as to how they’d deal with China. But Biden has made it clear he believes Trump’s negotiations have hurt Americans. He says the US needs “new rules” and “new processes” to dictate trade relationships with foreign countries.
Biden didn’t say much about data privacy on the campaign trail. During his years as a US senator and as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, however, he introduced and co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to make it easier for the FBI and law enforcement to monitor communications, including the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act, which allows law enforcement to surveil communications over the internet, including voice over IP calls and other internet traffic.
CNET Editor-in-chief Connie Guglielmo contributed to this report.
Correction, Nov. 7: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Harris’ firsts. She’ll become the first woman, and the first woman of color, to hold the office of vice president.