Nov 9, 2020 - Technology

Tech's Biden-era reset

Illustration of the "JOE" Joe Biden logo with the 'O' as a reset button.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Joe Biden's transformation into president-elect Saturday kicks off a new era for tech, giving an industry that's found itself increasingly at odds with government the chance for a reset.

The big picture: Biden's ascent could see the restoration of some tech-friendly Obama-era policies but is unlikely to end the bipartisan techlash that grew during Trump's term.

Here's what tech has to look forward to.

Tech's issues: D.C's spotlight will brighten on privacy, surveillance and hate speech online. These issues animate Democrats, and Biden has already pledged a task force to study ties between online harassment and real-world extremism, violence and abuse.

  • Yes, but: Democrats will need to pull out a long-shot flip of Senate control to pass new laws in most of these areas.
  • Still, the parties did get close in 2019 on negotiating a major federal data privacy bill. Even a divided Congress just might get that across the finish line.

Antitrust: Expect little immediate change in the progress of antitrust enforcement against tech companies — including the Justice Department's lawsuit against Google and a possible move by the Federal Trade Commission and/or several states against Facebook.

  • Democrats have more of a stomach for tough moves against business monopolies than Republicans, and they could embrace the aggressive findings of a House Judiciary report as well as expand the Trump DOJ's claims against Google.
  • Yes, but: Democrats in the White House and Congress face too many other massive crises — the pandemic, recession, healthcare, climate and more — to make action against tech firms a priority.

Telecom rules: With control of the Federal Communications Commission passing to Democrats, look for...

  • pushes to increase subsidies for universal high-speed internet and possibly to help municipalities build public broadband networks;
  • an effort to revive Obama-era net neutrality rules; and
  • quick rejection of continued action on Trump’s Section 230 executive order.

Singling out companies: Biden is likely to end the Trump administration's practice of targeting individual companies outside of normal regulatory processes, as it did in disputes involving TikTok, Amazon, Huawei and other firms.

  • Yes, but: The White House may no longer pursue this tactic, but it could be kept alive by populist Republicans moving away from their party's laissez-faire tradition.

Partisan warfare via online platforms won't end and might intensify, particularly from disappointed Trump supporters fired up by a recalcitrant former president.

  • Yes, but: While misinformation will remain a big challenge for companies, Trump's departure will turn down the volume on one big input-stream of baseless claims and charges.
  • Trump will still be able to tweet, assuming Twitter doesn't shut down his account, but his blasts will carry less consequence.
  • Complaints about alleged tech censorship of conservative views won't vanish — but will lose Executive Branch backing.

China: The trade war with China will likely pause as both sides reassess the landscape.

  • Yes, but: Broader U.S. conflicts with China are with us for the long haul. How the Biden administration chooses to address them will also shape the terrain on which U.S. tech vies for global advantage in new markets like artificial intelligence, 5G innovation and VR/AR.

The coronavirus: Tech has a new opportunity to contribute constructively toward pandemic mitigation.

  • Yes, but: The coronavirus is so widespread in the U.S. now that the moment for effective deployment and use of contact-tracing tools may well have passed.

Be smart:

  • Tech founders and CEOs don't face re-election every four years and don't have term limits.
  • The scale and power of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook are unlikely to change any time soon.
  • They have led U.S. stock market for years, and there's little sign that could change as long as the Federal Reserve holds interest rates down — though a deadlocked Congress could sink stimulus efforts and doom us to a long slow recovery.
  • As in the past, if today's dominant firms ever find themselves eclipsed, it's more likely to happen thanks to a new wave of technological innovation than through government action.
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