Throughout his campaign to win the White House, President-elect Joe Biden made it clear that the technology industry was not at the top of his list. He mentioned COVID-19 and climate change endlessly (and for good reasons) but somewhat seemed to barely address the fact that he thought the Obama administration had been too friendly with Silicon Valley. What will a Biden presidency mean for Big Tech and the rest of the technology industry?
In January 2020, during an interview for the New York Times, Biden admitted that he wanted to revoke Section 230 and referred to tech executives as “little creeps” who displayed an “overwhelming arrogance.” Section 230 is a piece of Internet legislation in the US, which provides immunity for website publishers from third-party content. In other words, it provides (with some exceptions) big internet companies with immunity from liability for hosting problematic content if it was published there by someone else, also known as ‘third-party users’.
But those same internet companies who Biden criticised have also been among his campaign’s top 10 donors. As technology industry insiders joined his campaign, incoming vice president Kamala Harris showed long-standing ties to Silicon Valley as a former district attorney in San Francisco.
Yet, speaking to the MIT Technology Review, Gigi Sohn, who served as counsellor to Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama administration, assured that technology isn’t high on Biden’s list of priorities. Sohn explained that the President-elect would first have to focus on other major issues that will take up his administration’s early focus. “We could talk about the evils of the internet, but you still need it,” she said. “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 Biden’s transition website detailing his administration’s agenda, he highlighted four priority areas: COVID-19, economic recovery, racial equity, and climate change. Technology was also mentioned but only briefly and with a focus on expanding broadband internet rather than regulation of Big Tech companies. So what can we expect from the Biden administration when it comes to tech regulation? While even Biden’s opinion remains unclear, here’s what is worth paying attention to.
Or at least, he might refocus the debate on the section. While Biden’s stance on it is perhaps more nuanced than what he suggested when speaking to the New York Times, Section 230 will continue to be an area of debate. Rather than being driven by the Republican-led discourse charging anti-conservative bias at social media companies that we saw during the Trump presidency, which was not founded on any evidence by the way, the conversation might instead shift to how these companies are too big, too powerful. This sounds like a good place to start.
As the Technology Review highlighted, this prediction 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.’”
The Department of Justice filed a long-awaited antitrust lawsuit against Google in October 2020. While it can’t be assured just yet, experts agree that the lawsuit will continue under a Biden presidency if not strengthened, especially with several states expected to file their own lawsuits against Google very soon.
Yes, the Obama administration had a publicly friendly relationship with Silicon Valley, and yes, Biden disapproved of it and called tech executives “little creeps.” But the plain facts seem to indicate that those same relationships have greatly helped his efforts to get elected. In April 2019, Biden launched his presidential bid at a fundraiser hosted by Comcast executive David Cohen, which raised over $25 million from internet companies, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
On top of this, a number of Silicon Valley insiders joined his team, including Cynthia C. Hogan, a former government affairs executive at Apple. Of course, it remains unclear exactly how these political donations will affect the Biden administration’s approach to Big Tech, but the ties are as obvious as can be.
The need to create a coronavirus plan and a stimulus package will be Biden’s primary focus. Then comes the idea of potentially halting climate change—the list goes on. My point is, don’t expect Biden to come to the White House in January promising a ban on harmful surveillance capitalist business models. Not yet at least.
We all remember the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Senate investigation into Facebook’s mishandling of our data. It’s hard to shake off the memory of a smug and unperturbed Zuckerberg finagling his way out of culpability and an overwhelmingly tech-illiterate group of senators fumbling through a trainwreck of a hearing. But while we were busy drooling over our social media feeds and surviving a global pandemic, a far more thorough investigation was conducted by US lawmakers into Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Its conclusion? These companies have been abusing their monopoly power and must be broken up.
Earlier this month, the House Judiciary Committee’s Democratic leadership published a 499-page report that details the transgressions committed by America’s largest tech giants and its recommendations for how to rein them in. The companies are accused by lawmakers of resorting to unscrupulous tactics to maintain their dominance in key markets—from commerce to advertising to information sharing, quashing competition, harming small businesses and consumers, and jeopardising the public’s privacy rights in the process.
Democrats at the helm of the 16-month inquiry recommended breaking up the companies, reforming antitrust laws (which promote market competition), and empowering government agencies that monitor monopolistic behaviours of companies.
In its report, the committee states that the companies “wield their dominance in ways that erode entrepreneurship, degrade Americans’ privacy online, and undermine the vibrancy of the free and diverse press.” The result, the committee finds, “is less innovation, fewer choices for consumers, and a weakened democracy.”
The report’s findings were based on interviews with hundreds of competitors and clients of the tech companies, as well as a July 2020 hearing in which Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook, Sundar Pichai, and Mark Zuckerberg testified via videoconference in front of a panel of senators. During the hearing, lawmakers of both parties grilled the four executives about their companies’ predatory behaviour, albeit with different motives, with Democrats focusing on attempts to stifle competition and vanquish nascent start-ups and Republicans delving into the platforms’ alleged bias against conservatives. While the hearing was intentionally designed as a crowd-pleasing spectacle, it nonetheless emboldened Democrats to dig deeper into these companies’ dealings. “[A]nswers were often evasive and non-responsive … raising fresh questions about whether they believe they are beyond the reach of democratic oversight,” the report states.
Among the accusations levelled against Amazon in the report were claims that the online retail behemoth has established its dominance over numerous industries and has been unfairly promoting its own products over those of independent merchants who utilise its platform—37 per cent of which depend exclusively on Amazon for their income. The company is also accused of mining customer’s data in order to boost sales of home products and of bullying smaller sellers.
Apple is accused of acting as a gatekeeper of the software marketplace by determining which apps get to be featured on its App Store and favouring their own applications. The company has also been chided for charging a 30 per cent commission from sales of certain apps, which, in turn, raises prices for consumers.
As for Google, the report finds that the giant maintains a monopoly in search and search advertising and mines data from third parties in order to keep its edge over other search engines.
Facebook, ever the Voldemort of the tech world, faces multiple accusations, among which is the company’s usage of anti-competitive tactics to ‘entrench’ its monopoly over social networking and online advertising. The report accuses Facebook of systematically acquiring and cloning features of competitors in order to maintain their hegemony, and of violating data and privacy rights as it does so.
“As gatekeepers to the digital economy, these platforms enjoy the power to pick winners and losers, shake down small businesses and enrich themselves while choking off competitors […] Our founders would not bow before a king. Nor should we bow before the emperors of the online economy,” said Representative David Cicilline (D-RI), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee’s antitrust subcommittee, in a statement.
The House Judiciary Committee’s investigation constitutes the most significant attempt to bridle tech companies’ power since the 1990s, when the US government sued Microsoft for antitrust violations. Alas, as all things American these days, conclusions about how to act against these tech giants had split along party lines. While the committee’s Democratic leadership has been unequivocal in its call to enact “structural” changes in these companies and empower federal agencies to monitor their conduct, Republicans rejected some of the report’s findings, instead focusing on the need to tackle tech companies’ muzzling of conservative voices, and were largely opposed to fortifying antitrust legislation and breaking up the companies.
Still, many view this report as a harbinger of change. Advocates for small businesses and figures fighting against tech monopolies believe that the committee has laid the groundwork for future antitrust legislation and have been urging congress to act swiftly.
With the future of our democracies on the line, and global markets (as well as the planet itself) quavering under the pressure of swelling monopolies, a genuine effort to rein in the rising American technocracy is desperately needed.