Jan 28, 2020 - Politics & Policy

What to expect on tech legislation in 2020

Illustration of a hand holding a pixelated gavel.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Bipartisan bills to protect kids online, promote and secure new technologies like 5G and autonomous vehicles, and restrain tech giants' power are a real possibility in 2020 — despite a presidential election and impeachment proceedings preoccupying Washington.

The big picture: Sweeping legislation will still struggle to gain traction, but narrower measures on issues like privacy and antitrust could help lawmakers show they can work across a bitter political divide.

What's next: Lawmakers are likely to unite around the following legislative priorities next year, Capitol Hill aides and industry sources tell Axios.

Protecting kids' privacy: Comprehensive privacy legislation may still prove elusive despite strong bipartisan interest (more on that below). But there could be bipartisan lift for legislation to bolster digital privacy protections for minors. Efforts to update the decades-old Children's Online Privacy Protection Act are already underway in both the House and Senate.

  • House Energy & Commerce Committee members Tim Walberg (R-Mich.) and Bobby (D-Ill.) teamed up on a bill to let parents force companies to delete personal information collected about their kids. It would also expand protections for kids ages 13 to 15. (COPPA covers children under 13.)
  • Another E&C member, Democratic Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, will soon introduce her own legislation to update the law, the panel's consumer protection subcommittee chair Jan Schakowsky confirmed to Axios in an interview that will air on C-SPAN's "The Communicators."
  • In the Senate, Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) introduced their own COPPA update last March that would ban targeted advertising to kids.

Keeping kids safe online: Legislation that would increase pressure on platforms to take more action to police online child pornography and predation could gain bipartisan support.

  • Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has written draft legislation that would establish a multi-agency commission to set guidelines for fighting child exploitation, as first reported by The Information. Tech companies would need to adhere to the guidelines in order to keep the protections of a key liability shield, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
  • Context: Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have hinted at broader changes to Section 230, which protects tech companies from lawsuits over user-generated content. But anything that goes beyond a narrow carve-out for a strictly apolitical issue like child exploitation is unlikely to draw serious support.

Antitrust: Policymakers from both parties have talked about updating antitrust laws to address tech companies' data- and advertising-driven business models, which don't fit neatly under existing theories of competition that focus primarily on consumer prices. That sort of overhaul won't happen in a matter of months, but smaller changes are possible.

  • Rep. David Cicilline, who chairs the antitrust panel under the House Judiciary Committee, has bipartisan legislation meant to give newspapers more power in negotiating with Facebook and Google. His Journalism Competition & Preservation Act got a boost earlier this month when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell signed on as a cosponsor to the Senate version.
  • Cicilline is also leading an investigation into the market power of major tech companies, which is expected to wrap up within the first half of the year. Cicilline says he expects the probe to produce recommendations on changes to antitrust law and regulation, which could set up bipartisan legislation down the road.

Autonomous vehicles: The House passed self-driving car legislation in 2017 that didn't pick up steam in the Senate, but a bicameral, bipartisan effort led by the House Energy & Commerce and Senate Commerce committees is underway this year.

  • Staffers are soliciting feedback on portions of a discussion draft that includes clarifying federal and state roles on regulation of autonomous vehicles, and directing the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to start developing AV safety rules, according to a Hill aide.

5G security: The House has already passed a slew of bills related to advancing secure 5G networks, with some expected to be taken up by the Senate.

  • The House in December passed the Secure and Trusted Communications Networks Act, which would require the FCC to establish a fund to reimburse telecom companies that have to rip out and replace equipment from providers deemed untrustworthy, such as China's Huawei.
  • Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) blocked an attempt in the Senate to pass the bill by unanimous consent, raising concerns about how the program would be funded. But the bipartisan effort has the support of Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker.
  • This House this year passed the Secure 5G and Beyond Act, which would require the administration to create a national strategy to protect against threats to 5G. There is a companion bill in the Senate.

Yes, but: Uncertainty still looms over lawmakers' very top tech policy priority: delivering sweeping online privacy legislation.

  • Congress ended 2019 with dueling Republican and Democratic drafts in the Senate and a bipartisan staff draft in the House. The latter failed to resolve the two biggest partisan sticking points stalling privacy legislation: Republicans want to override existing state privacy laws, while Democrats want to give individuals the right to sue companies over privacy violations.
  • Onlookers from industry are hopeful that pressure will build to break through those impasses and deliver a federal law as more states, like Washington, pursue their own laws and California begins enforcing its privacy law in July.
  • Schakowsky told Axios she believes there may be room for compromise on both areas, with legislation that would, for instance, create "spaces in which states could actually act" instead of preempting them outright.

The catch: "Advancing legislation" is a broad term. It's one thing for a popular bill to get voted favorably out of a committee. It's another for it to get floor time and clear both chambers of Congress.

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