After a drawn-out election process, Joe Biden is the president-elect and is set to become the 46th president of the United States.
Trump’s presidency has been somewhat turbulent for the tech industry, with the president taking aim at Big Tech as well as Chinese tech companies such as Huawei and TikTok.
Although the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic and climate crisis will likely dominate the first few months of the Biden administration, the tech industry will be watching closely to see what the change in administration will entail.
Biden tech industry promises
Although light on tech detail, Biden’s election manifesto included several commitments designed to encourage innovation in the US, largely focused on clean energy technologies, such as battery storage, negative emissions technologies, investment in the micro-mobility, and agro-tech.
Biden also pledged to make a $300bn investment in R&D and “breakthrough technologies”, as well as plans to direct federal investment into new technology hubs. He has also made a commitment to rolling out “broadband, or wireless broadband via 5G, to every American”.
In the run-up to the election, Big Tech, predominantly social media, faced increased scrutiny over its response to election misinformation. Trump has also butted heads with social media platforms at an increasing frequency, accusing Facebook and Twitter of censorship and of “suppressing the corruption of Joe Biden”.
Biden has not yet laid out concrete plans for Big Tech, so far remaining less vocal on the issue than other Democratic candidates such as Elizabeth Warren, whose promise to “break up Big Tech” was a cornerstone of her campaign. Biden is yet to endorse a similar stance, and the tech industry will be watching and waiting to see how policy related to key issues such as antitrust law and net neutrality will play out.
Some have pointed to vice-president-elect Kamala Harris’s ties to Silicon Valley, as well as the close relationship Big Tech enjoyed during the Obama administration, as an indication that Big Tech may be in a strong position going into the new administration.
Furthermore, According to the Center for Responsive Politics, five out of the 10 largest contributors to the Biden campaign committee were tech giants.
However, this does not necessarily mean that Big Tech will be off the hook, with many believing that the issue of antitrust and Big Tech regulation will be firmly on the agenda.
Earlier this year, House Democrats published a report on the “monopoly power” of Facebook, Amazon, Alphabet and Apple, calling for changes to be made to antitrust laws. In October, the Justice Department filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, which will continue into the next administration.
Big Tech may also feel the effects of Biden’s proposed changes to the corporate tax rate.
“For Big Tech companies, Biden still intends to impose stringent antitrust measures, as well as tough taxation and privacy regulations,” Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates told Verdict. “However, with his history as the vice president of a Silicon Valley-friendly Obama Administration – and California-elected Kamala Harris on his ticket – a victory would likely be the outcome of choice compared to Trump’s ongoing allegations of anti-conservative bias from social media giants.”
However, Morgan Wright, chief security advisor at SentinelOne and a former US State Department special advisor, believes that antitrust will be a focus:
“Antitrust will be pushed by a Biden presidency for different reasons than a Trump administration. Democrats believe Big Tech has too much power, and the movement to break them up has been gaining steam for a couple of years. The recent antitrust suit filed by the attorney general was very limited in scope and just around monopoly in search by Google.”
When it comes to social media, several people have predicted that Biden could support a tough approach to tackling misinformation. The Biden campaign has also previously called for social media giants to “make concrete pledges for how they can ensure their algorithms and platforms are not empowering the surveillance state”.
As calls for a crackdown on misinformation grow louder, it is likely that the Biden administration will continue this trend, albeit for different reasons than Trump’s claims of anti-conservative bias.
“The election process has once more been significantly disrupted and undermined through sharing of misinformation, fake news and interference with campaign ads,” said David Richards, CEO and co-founder of WANdisco.
“What’s clear is that the system needs changing and regulation needs to be brought to the fore. I believe a Biden presidency is more likely to lead to a concerted effort on antitrust measures and algorithm transparency – which would begin to untangle the monopolies.”
Another key area for the tech industry will be Section 230. This is the law that states that websites should not be “treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider”, meaning they are not legally responsible for content posted by users. Both Biden and Trump have called for changes to be made to Section 230, which could have significant implications for social media companies.
Nadav Shoval, CEO and co-founder of OpenWeb, said:
“With the recent hearings around Section 230, both Trump and Biden are targeting 230 for different reasons; however both could have a chilling effect on speech should their positions be carried out. Trump wants 230 repealed in order to say what he wishes without limits – in his view he owns the audience, so should be guaranteed the reach. Biden wants more moderation and protection against hate speech and misinformation, and is focused on the role platforms play in deciding what’s magnified.”
Another significant change could be a shakeup of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the government agency responsible for regulating communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable.
“A Biden presidency would change the makeup and leadership of one of the most important organisations – the FCC. If the Democrats win the Senate and the White House, then a President Biden could appoint new members and designate one as chair. By law, no more than three members of the five-member board can come from the same political party. A Republican Senate and Democratic White House would make for a very complicated FCC board as all nominees require Senate approval.”
Another area businesses across the tech industry and beyond will be paying close attention to is the issue of data privacy. Last week, Californians voted to pass the California Privacy Rights and Enforcement Act, or Proposition 24, which builds on the state’s existing data privacy law.
There has been much speculation over whether federal privacy regulation could be on the cards, with some predicting that this could become a reality under the Biden administration. Whether this becomes a reality or not remains to be seen, but organisations will most likely be hoping for more clarity on the issue.
Robert Cattanach, partner at international law firm Dorsey & Whitney said:
“Once the pain becomes unbearable, Congress will swallow its differences and adopt a federal standard. That is unlikely to happen anytime soon (eg this legislative session) but medium-term –e.g next 2-4 years– seems increasingly likely.”
“For the UK, a Democratic victory presents something of an unknown when it comes to negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal, particularly on topics such as data flows, although we know that Biden is in favour of GDPR-style privacy regulation,” said Global Tech Advocates’ Shaw. “It is likely that this will happen but perhaps not until 2022. Ultimately, the UK and global tech sectors can be hopeful that a Biden victory will bring with it a more collaborative approach to international digital diplomacy, as the administration looks to rebuild relationships with allies around the world.”
When it comes to China, Biden’s manifesto pledged to “confront foreign efforts to steal American intellectual property” and “address state-sponsored cyber espionage against American companies”. Biden has previously described Tiktok as “a matter of genuine concern”.
In his manifesto, Biden also pledged to “bring back critical supply chains to America so we aren’t dependent on China”.
Although the Biden administration may be less vocal on this issue than its predecessor, which aggressively pursued a trade war with China, this pledge suggests the issue will continue to impact the tech industry once the Trump administration has come to an end.
“Following the ongoing US trade war and strained relationships between the Trump administration and the Chinese government, there are hopes that Biden’s more collaborative approach could ease some of these tensions,” said Shaw. “However, US restrictions on the likes of Huawei have already had serious implications for network infrastructure around the world. It is likely that Biden will take a more lenient stance on trade tariffs, but will remain cautious when it comes to cybersecurity and IP theft, given the focus of his broader policies on data privacy.”
Shaw believes that proposed changes to the H1-B visas, which enable foreign workers with specialised occupations to work in the US and were restricted by Trump, could help encourage a more global approach to tech talent under the Biden administration, as well as narrowing the skills gap within the industry:
“Elsewhere, Biden’s approach to immigration reform suggests he will be more favourable to global tech, particularly given how regularly US tech companies come up against caps limiting the number of overseas employees who can obtain visas. Compared to Trump’s resistance to the H1-B visa route, Biden’s more accommodating stance on temporary and permanent employment immigration policies is a clear positive for the tech industry.”
The subject of cybersecurity is yet another pressing issue, with the industry calling for greater federal funding to protect against nation-state attacks, particularly considering the spate of attacks during the presidential election season.
“A Biden administration would rely more heavily on government regulation and legislation with respect to cybersecurity,” said SentinelOne’s Wright. “Republicans tend to favour more of a market-based approach, letting market forces determine how the private sector approaches this issue.
“Overall, I think the issue of cybersecurity will not be handled appropriately regardless of party. Every administration, Republican or Democrat, has struggled with securing our critical infrastructure and defending against nation states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.”
On the whole, the tech industry may be left waiting a little longer to discover what is in store under the Biden administration, given the dominance of Covid-19 and the likely tumultuous few months ahead as the Trump administration draws to a close. Regardless, it is likely that the next four years could see significant change for the tech industry under Biden, particularly when it comes to Big Tech scrutiny.