Biden beats Trump: Here’s what it means for tech
This story is part of Elections 2020, CNET’s coverage of the run-up to voting in November.
Joe Biden has won the race for the presidency, unseating Donald Trump to take the White House. Biden, Barack Obama’s vice president, 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.
Multiple news outlets called the election on Saturday after projecting Biden would win Pennsylvania, giving him more than the 270 electoral votes needed. Vote counts took longer than in most years because states were deluged with mail-in ballots cast in record numbers by people avoid polling stations amid the coronavirus pandemic. Media outlets calling the race for Biden included CNN, Fox, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as ABC, CBS and NBC. Trump has said he will challenge the results.
Biden tweeted Saturday that he was “honored” to have won. “I promise you this,” he said, “I will be a President for all Americans — whether you voted for me or not.” Biden also changed his Twitter bio to read “President-Elect,” and Harris, who also tweeted, changed hers to read “Vice President-Elect.”
Though technology issues, including net neutrality, rural broadband and online privacy, were hot topics in the primary season, the coronavirus pandemic and its fallout have dominated the political discussion over the past several months.
Still battle lines have been drawn over how to rein in big tech companies. As the influence and size of companies like Google, Twitter and Facebook have grown, lawmakers have questioned whether more regulation and reforms to antitrust law are needed. Democrats are troubled by the rampant flow of hate speech and disinformation, including interference by foreign countries in the 2020 US presidential 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.
Of course, the most immediate issue President-elect Biden faces is the COVID-19 crisis, which has led to a rapid adoption of telemedicine and virtual education. The pandemic has also highlighted 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.
Read more: Election 2020: Facebook, Twitter and YouTube wrestle with misinformation
During congressional hearings in July, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Apple’s Tim Cook and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai were grilled about allegedly monopolistic practices. Zuckerberg, Pichai and Twitter’s Jack Dorsey were back on Capitol Hill in October facing tough questions from Democrats and Republicans over a key internet law that’s helped their businesses flourish.
So far, Biden has remained relatively quiet on tech. 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.
The biggest issue 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.
Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice under President Trump filed a landmark lawsuit last month against Google, accusing the tech giant of illegally holding monopolies in search and search advertising. The suit was the culmination of a more than yearlong investigation into alleged anticompetitive practices at the company and the first such antitrust case in the tech world in decades.
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 who ran for the Democratic nomination for president, pushed to break up big tech companies, 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 month, 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: Biden defeats Trump, and he has a stimulus plan for the US. What we know right now
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.
All of this comes as the Republican-led Federal Communications Commission considers writing new regulations for Section 230 that would penalize companies for censoring content. A Biden Administration is likely to put the kibosh on the FCC’s efforts to write rules to police social media companies. Instead, he’s likely to look to Congress for answers.
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.
A spokesman for Biden’s campaign said 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.”
The COVID-19 crisis highlights the gaps in coverage. And Biden’s campaign said that the $20 billion in broadband infrastructure funding is meant to help close those gaps.
“As we face the economic impacts of this global pandemic for months to come, it’s critical we bridge this divide and build a digital infrastructure that is available to all,” the campaign said in a statement regarding this policy.
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.
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.