It’s day one of President Biden's administration, prompting the question: what can we expect when it comes to technology over the next four years?
As expected, the Trump White House website has been archived and replaced with a new, and largely empty, Biden version. But it does contain details of what Biden’s top priorities are going to be and, well... there’s not a tech topic in sight.
To be fair, you can hardly blame Biden for this. We are, after all, still smack in the middle of a global pandemic in which a staggering 400,000 Americans have died and millions infected. It’s fair to assume that dealing with that – particularly getting vaccines into people – is going to be the main focus for the next year.
Next on the list: climate. Also fair enough given the fact that, yet again, 2020 was one of the hottest years on record and the impact – from Californian wildfires to Florida's hurricanes – is only going to get worse. So what about the fallback position of many of those who believe in climate change but don’t want to actually change the way existing markets work: the magic-new-technology-will-save-us position?
There’s no information save a statement that “the Biden administration will ensure we meet the demands of science, while empowering American workers and businesses to lead a clean energy revolution.” Which sounds to us like tax credits etc.
Next priorities: racial equity, then economy, then healthcare, then – aha! – immigration.
What is Biden going to do about the many barriers that the Trump administration put in the way of immigrant workers, particular as they impact the tech industry and the work visa programs?
Well, in some respects he may not need to do anything. Because, with typical Trump admin efficiency, the latest H-1B rules pushed just last week by the White House are likely moot. How come? Because they failed to publish them in the Federal Register.
There is no chance that the Biden administration will move forward with those proposals. In fact, even if they had been published in the Federal Register, they would have been halted. The White House put out a statement today that explained anything put forward in the past 60 days will be automatically put under review – which in all likelihood means terminated. And that includes the other anti-immigrant policies the Trump admin pushed at the last minute.
The president is also expected to remove or lift all the immigration restrictions that Trump put in place – in fact, there is a slew of 17 directives Biden will sign on his first day. Since Trump never passed actual immigration legislation, the restrictions were all built on presidential directives, and as such they can be by and large overridden or discarded by the next president. Among those directives is the lifting of the travel restrictions on seven Muslim-majority countries. Biden also insisted during his campaign that he was in favor of immigration and community integration, and modernizing the system through which foreigners apply to live and work in the United States.
Back to the stated priorities on the White House website – the last one is “Restoring America’s Global Standing” – which is also unlikely to have a direct tech impact.
All of which means we need to look at the people who have been installed in the various tech jobs in the US government because they will be the ones who drive what actions are taken and decisions are made over the next four years.
Both the heads of the FCC and FTC left today, leaving their positions open. And another FTC Commissioner – Rohit Chopra – is leaving to become the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, potentially giving Biden a way to bend the FTC in a specific direction.
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The FCC job is likely to be filled by Jessica Rosenworcel and that means several things, chiefly that we are likely to have net neutrality come out yet again. Although, given that she has been in the middle of the previous four fights over this topic, presumably Rosenworcel has a blueprint for getting it done without the same degree of agony.
It will also likely mean the FCC reasserts itself as the authority for internet things – although that may depend on how much of a fuss the new FTC head puts up. And the FCC is likely to act on getting more and faster broadband to people, and to finally improve the data maps that have consistently undermined efforts to force cable companies to do more.
Just as much, if not more importantly, is what the Biden administration/Democratic Caucus will do with the antitrust actions taken out against tech giants Google and Facebook and, by extension, Amazon, Apple and Twitter.
Left-leaning organizations are already furiously arguing against the installation of Obama DoJ official Renata Hesse as the new head of the DoJ’s antitrust division. The reason? Because she has done work for Amazon and Google – but perhaps worse, she has done work for Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX).
Already a widely loathed figure even in his own party, Ted Cruz’s decision to amplify President Trump’s baseless accusations of election fraud in the Senate while armed protesters were storming the Capitol had made any association with him toxic.
It’s hard to know how seriously to take the denunciations of Hesse. The insistence of some kind of political purity for every single person hired by an administration is frequently taken too far. As a lawyer, Hesse took on clients in the technology world and did an excellent job for them. Does that show some kind of deep-seated pro-tech bias? It seems unlikely but it is worth looking into, especially given how the Big Tech antitrust cases are certain to define the DoJ’s antitrust division for the next four years.
It’s worth noting that many of the same complaints existed around former FCC head Tom Wheeler because he came from the same industry that he was due to oversee. It turned out that Wheeler took a much harder line against telco giants than anyone expected and his experience made him surprisingly effective. The same could easily be true for Hesse.
It’s also worth noting that last month Congress boosted the antitrust division’s budget this coming year by $18m to $184.5m, so there is clearly the will and expectation for the DoJ to really take on the technology super-corps.
President Biden is not really a tech guy so we predict he will leave the antitrust investigations largely to the DoJ. He’s also more of an old-school politician and believes in a significant degree of autonomy of the Justice Department – as opposed to Trump’s heavy-handed and at times deeply troubling interventions at the DoJ.
Another place to look in terms of antitrust actions is in Congress and there Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is likely to be the central figure. Klobuchar was the master of ceremonies at Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, so she clearly has significant influence within the White House. She is also likely to head up the Senate’s antitrust subcommittee.
What is Klobuchar’s position on the tech giants? She rails against anti-competitive behavior, and has introduced several bills in the past few years aimed at cutting back Big Tech’s power. She is almost certain to champion what some see as the most extreme position on the giants: the forced divestiture of other companies. Think Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube – Klobuchar is already persuaded of the value of breaking them up.
Klobachar was also one of the more aggressive (and better informed) members of Congress when the various CEOs of Facebook, Google and so on appeared in front of committee hearings. She even put out news releases about it. Twice.
On top of that, the Biden administration has already put forward DC circuit chief judge Merrick Garland as the new attorney general – and Garland actually taught antitrust law at Harvard Law School. So it looks as though Big Tech is going to be given a hard time over the next few years.
As for the other key posts: Dr Eric Lander will be in the cabinet and director of the office of science and technology policy. But he is a biologist and so more likely to be focused on broader science issues like the coronavirus and climate change.
We don’t know for certain if Biden will retain the US government’s current CTO Michael Kratsios. In fact, under President Trump the position was left empty for two years. It seems likely that Biden will name a new person to the job though it’s not clear whether he will boost the job or leave it as it is, which is, sadly, pretty inconsequential at the moment.
All of which reiterates what we’ve been saying for some time now: as a 78-year-old man facing a pandemic and a climate crisis and as someone who massively values relationships with other countries – which have been badly damaged by President Trump over the past four years – technology just ain’t on Joe Biden’s mind.
Which is a shame, because given the pervasive impact of technology on every aspect of our lives right now what the United States really needs is not just presidential focus but a significantly higher profile for technological issues. There should be a Secretary of Technology in the Cabinet with huge resources and political sway. But there isn’t and there won’t be during this administration. ®
PS: Wondering about Section 230? President Biden has argued for scrapping the whole thing though, ultimately, the issue should be decided by Congress.
And you may be amused to learn that, in 1991, the then-chairman of the US Senate Judiciary Committee, a one Senator Joe Biden, pushed for an electronic surveillance clause in the law that sparked the development of PGP by Phil Zimmermann. We'll find out if Biden's stance on digital privacy has changed in 30 years.