Jan 7, 2021 - Technology

Georgia results sweep away tech's regulatory logjam

Illustration of a small man in a river directing a logjam of binary code
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Georgia's election results handing Senate control to Democrats mean the incoming Biden administration can fill key seats at the agencies that regulate tech.

Why it matters: That will give Democrats a chance to turn tech policy talk into action and advance legislation on issues like privacy and competition.

At the agencies: Without new incoming chairs, the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission — the agencies that oversee tech and telecom issues — would face deadlock, as current FTC leader Joe Simons is widely expected to step down. Democratic control of the Senate eliminates that scenario.

  • Democrats will take the reins as the FTC litigates its antitrust case against Facebook and launches a wide-ranging review of social media and streaming company data collection practices.
  • The Democrats at the FTC, Rebecca Kelly Slaughter and Rohit Chopra, have called in the past for the agency to more harshly penalize Facebook and YouTube over privacy violations.
  • At the FCC, a Democratic majority will be able to pass new net neutrality rules and reform subsidy programs aimed at closing the digital divide.
  • "The agencies and government will be fully staffed, and that’s not a small thing," said former FCC adviser Gigi Sohn, now a distinguished fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy. "The agencies will act boldly."

Yes, but: It will likely take months before there are Democratic majorities at each agency.

On the Hill: The change in party control of the Senate also improves the prospects for advancing tech-related legislation on antitrust reform, privacy and changes to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which protects online platforms from liability for user-contributed content.

Section 230:

  • While both parties have mulled changes to Section 230, Republicans' complaints about anti-conservative bias by social media companies have led many of them to embrace a full repeal of the law, while Democrats have largely pushed less sweeping revisions.
  • "I think the possibilities for meaningful but non-crazy reforms to Section 230 are possible now that Democrats are in charge," Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz told Axios. "And I have no doubt that both the Judiciary committee and the new Attorney General will be looking very carefully at either new antitrust law or new interpretations of existing law."

Antitrust:

  • There already is some bipartisan agreement in the House on some changes to antitrust law, spearheaded by a House Judiciary Committee investigation.
  • One Republican House aide told Axios: "I think more could potentially get done... The worry for Republicans is that Democrats go too far, outside the scope of targeted antitrust enforcement."
  • “We’ve been running through brick walls and now there are holes there,” one Democratic aide said of the push for antitrust legislation. “I would assume we’ll go as big as possible.”

Privacy legislation:

  • Democratic control of Congress means there might be new ways to move beyond the two sticking points that have so far stymied efforts toward a federal privacy law — allowing individuals to sue over privacy violations, and preempting state rules.
  • "All of these things become much more likely now because Democrats hold the gavel in both houses," Sohn said.

What's next: Democrats will begin rounding up support for positions on key committees, line up their agency picks, and start forming agendas.

Our thought bubble: This will be a "put up or shut up" moment for Democrats, no longer blocked by a Republican majority, to decide what tech policies they want to push to the finish line.

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