President Joe Biden took the oath of office on Jan. 20.
President Joe Biden has been in office for nearly a month. He hit the ground running on his legislative agenda, pushing for Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. And now he’s preparing to introduce his $2 trillion infrastructure plan, which promises to include funding for broadband deployment to help close the digital divide.
Biden generally kept mum on the impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump, which ended Saturday without a conviction on incitement of a mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6. Instead, Biden stayed focused his biggest and most immediate challenge: COVID-19 pandemic. Biden’s top priority has been the vaccination of Americans against the deadly virus, which has claimed the lives of more than 485,000 Americans. He has set a goal of administering at least 100 million COVID-19 vaccine doses in his first 100 days in office. With current vaccines requiring two shots, that would mean fully vaccinating 50 million Americans.
The pandemic has pushed technology issues, including net neutrality, rural broadband and online privacy, to the sideline. But the violent insurrection at the Capitol — fueled, in part, by disinformation spread on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter — has many lawmakers looking at ways to rein in the tech giants.
What does the Biden administration mean for Big Tech
Democrats are troubled by the rampant surge of hate speech and disinformation, including about the outcome of the 2020 US presidential election. Republicans have alleged that social media sites censor conservatives. The companies strongly deny that claim.
Both sides say these companies have grown too big.
The COVID-19 crisis, which led to a sudden adoption of telemedicine and virtual education, has shed light on other pressing tech issues, such as the digital divide that prevents millions of Americans from accessing high-speed internet.
Specific tech issues are not at the top of the president’s immediate agenda. He has yet to name a permanent chair to the Federal Communications Commission. In January, he elevated Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to that post on a temporary basis. But with no new nominee to fill the spot of the outgoing Republican chairman, the FCC is deadlocked with two Democrats and two Republicans.
Still, Biden’s presence in the Oval Office over the next four years will have a major influence on the tech sector, including infrastructure policy on broadband deployment and national security issues involving Chinese tech companies. 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 companies are already feeling the heat from politicians on both sides of the political aisles.
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, released in October 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 if Democrats, angered by the Capitol insurrection and social media’s role in fomenting it, 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.
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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 become an issue for these companies.
Biden has yet to nominate individuals to take up key leadership positions in the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice or at the Federal Trade Commission. So it’s hard to predict what the antitrust policy agenda will look like.
Scott Wiener says California can save the internet
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, the CEOs from these social media companies 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.
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.
During the campaign, 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 FCC decided not to pursue writing new regulations for Section 230 that would penalize companies for censoring content, something Trump had 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, Section 230 reform will likely be handled by Congress.
Senate Democrats, led by Mark Warner of Virginia, Mazie Hirono of Hawaii and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have already introduced a bill this month seeking to hold social media platforms legally accountable for content on their sites if users’ posts pose a real-world harm.
But critics, like the grassroots group Fight the Future, warn that the Democrats’ bill goes too far and would “gut” the protections for online companies and solidify the market power of tech giants while harming smaller players, such as Etsy, Medium and Nextdoor.
“We absolutely agree that Congress needs to take meaningful action to address the real world harm being done by Big Tech companies’ surveillance capitalist business models,” Fight for the Future spokesperson Evan Greer said. “But unfortunately this bill, as written, would have enormous unintended consequences for human rights and freedom of expression.”
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.
Net neutrality, the principle that all internet traffic should be treated fairly, has been one of the hottest topics of debate over the past several years. Consumers, tech companies and Democrats have pushed for stricter regulations prohibiting the prioritization of traffic, which resulted in the rules put in place by Obama’s FCC. But the Trump-era FCC agreed with ISPs and Republicans who complained the regulations were onerous and hurt capital investment.
It’s likely that net neutrality will come back in vogue under Biden. The Biden administration has already signaled that it will move to restore the Obama-era protections that were rolled back under Trump’s FCC. In early February, the DOJ dropped a department lawsuit filed under former President Trump that challenged California’s net neutrality rules. California’s law, considered more strict than federal rules adopted during the Obama administration, could set the baseline for future federal rules.
Whoever Biden chooses as his permanent FCC chair could say a lot about how aggressive the administration will be in giving the FCC authority to regulate broadband. There’s no question that after a new FCC chair is named and confirmed by the Senate that the Democrats will introduce a proceeding to restore the basic net neutrality protections. The real question is whether the agency will push for stricter rules, such as those adopted by California and whether the FCC will once again reclassify broadband service so that it’s more tightly regulated.
Net neutrality under the so-called Title II regime is strongly supported both by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, which means that with Democrats now controlling Congress, there could also finally be legislation codifying net neutrality protections.
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, CEO of the TechNet lobbying group, said 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 Wi-Fi 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 Trump administration had 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 had also included high-speed internet access as part of a $2 trillion infrastructure plan.
Congress has already stepped up to help. Billions of dollars were allocated in the COVID-19 relief bill that was passed in Congress in December to expand broadband to low-income families, to build networks for tribal lands and to help promote distance learning and telemedicine.
More funding for broadband expansion will likely come in a massive $2 trillion infrastructure bill that Biden is getting ready to introduce. Last week, Biden invited Democrats and Republicans to the White House to begin to make the case for his infrastructure push. Biden’s proposal will go beyond just repairing or building new roads and bridges. The plan will also include expanding broadband access, as well as addressing climate change.
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 tried to use 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.
Still, it’s clear that Biden isn’t moving quickly to roll back the Trump tariffs. Instead, the White House said that after Biden spoke with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Feb. 10 that the US is looking to counter Chinese military expansionism and human rights abuses.
Biden won’t maintain the Trump tariffs indefinitely. But tariffs may be used as leverage while the Biden administration crafts a larger strategy around China.
“President Biden underscored his fundamental concerns about Beijing’s coercive and unfair economic practices, crackdown in Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and increasingly assertive actions in the region, including toward Taiwan,” the White House said in a readout of the Feb. 10 call.
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.