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What a Biden-Harris Victory Could Mean for Tech Policy

Vice President and Director at Governance Studies, Brookings Institution  Senior Fellow at Governance Studies, Brookings Institution

United States Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s decision to put U.S. Senator Kamala Harris on his ticket as vice president means that we now have the fall lineup against U.S. Republican President Donald Trump and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence. Biden’s historic choice to put a prominent and well-respected African American woman on the ticket as his vice presidential selection guarantees high-level attention on Democrats’ bid to reclaim the White House.

What is less clear, however, is what the Biden-Harris combination will mean for technology policy, internet platform regulation, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and relations with China. Harris has been critical of technology companies on several issues, but also has close personal ties with a number of leading tech executives. In looking at Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan for economic recovery and other papers, though, several likely principles and projects stand out, which are outlined below. Taken together, these principles may form the basis of a new policy regime for the technology sector that shifts the prevailing guardrails in meaningful ways.

Greater Tech Sector Regulation

The mounting tech-lash against internet platforms outlined in a new Brookings book, “Turning Point:  Policymaking in the Era of Artificial Intelligence” means a Biden-Harris administration is likely to move towards greater regulation of the technology sector. That includes stronger action on competition policy, antitrust enforcement, privacy policy, cybersecurity, and Section 230 reforms.

This is consistent with information compiled during the House Antitrust Subcommittee investigation into big tech firms like Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. In a recent hearing, legislators accused these firms of engaging in anticompetitive practices, predatory behavior and using their market power to buy or undermine competitors. In a forthcoming report, Democrats are likely to propose stronger enforcement of these issues and greater support for small and medium-sized tech firms, with the goal of improving upon the consumer welfare standard and maintaining greater competition in the marketplace.

In his tenure during the U.S. former President Obama administration, Biden was quite critical of Silicon Valley, which may still be the case if he wins the election. U.S. Senator Harris, with a background as a skilled prosecutor and interrogator, may follow suit to ensure the appropriate level of enforcement against practices not deemed to be in the public interest. Both leaders may seek to address these issues within the context of big tech’s role in non-technology issues, including election interference.

Tougher Anti-Bias Enforcement

Another area of synergy on the Biden-Harris ticket will be in addressing the lack of diverse workforces in the technology industry and the biases that appear in AI systems, which amplify stereotypes and lead to disparate impacts for protected groups. As a prosecutor, Senator Harris will most likely promote algorithmic accountability and transparency, especially in areas like criminal justice, employment, housing, health care and education. A Biden-Harris administration will lend support to tougher anti-bias rules for the digital economy and stronger enforcement against internet platforms that fail to comply with civil rights and other data privacy protections.

In their efforts to address their past and current positions on criminal justice and policing, both Biden and Harris are more likely to support stronger guardrails on the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies, particularly among law enforcement and border security officials. Senator Harris may also address the technical flaws in the accurate identification of diverse populations in facial recognition.

Stronger Action Against Foreign Government Interference

As suggested, both Biden and Harris have been outspoken on the need for more action by social media companies against foreign government interference in American elections, especially in disinformation campaigns. Each has supported more money for state and local governments to protect critical infrastructure — including election infrastructure and voting processes — and tougher action against foreign governments and entities found to be interfering with U.S. elections. If there is evidence of foreign interference in the 2020 election, as already alleged by the American intelligence community, a Biden-Harris administration would take strong action against the offending countries. With the heightened attacks on voting rights protections, processes and campaign integrity by the GOP, this one issue may very well become of highest importance to the ticket and the Democratic party.

How Biden and Harris address issues with China may possibly become a rubric for their cybersecurity plans.

More Support For Worker Rights in the Gig Economy

One of the fault lines in the emerging gig economy has been questions surrounding worker rights and the use of independent contractors by tech companies. Right now, companies like Uber and Lyft classify workers as independent contractors and do not provide health or retirement benefits despite the apparent branding of workers’ vehicles and clothing. Biden’s economic plan calls for an “updated social contract that treats American workers and working families as essential at all times, not just times of crisis — with higher wages, stronger benefits and fair and safe workplaces.” Given the economic vulnerabilities created by the COVID-19 pandemic, a Biden-Harris ticket will look closer at worker reclassification and protections to promote more economic security for workers.

Following the lead of recent California legislation, the federal government may also make it harder to classify workers as independent contractors and require companies that engage in certain practices to count workers as full-time employees receiving relevant benefits. In more traditional telecommunications industries, a Biden-Harris ticket may also look more closely at improved collective bargaining agreements for contract workers and protection of unions as broadband expansion, especially through wireless 5G networks, enables job growth.

Higher Spending on Digital Infrastructure and Adoption Programs

Inadequate and inequitable access to high-speed broadband prevents ordinary citizens from benefiting from the new economy. Our research has noted that basic digital infrastructure increasingly is required to access telemedicine, engage in online learning, apply for jobs or get loans and mortgages. A Biden-Harris ticket could make closing the digital divide a national priority, especially for vulnerable urban and rural populations where obstacles in network deployment, affordability and adoption still exist.

Senator Harris, who has already been vocal about the health disparities contributing to higher rates of COVID-19 infection for African Americans, may be likely to embrace the expansion of telemedicine and digital health as opportunities to narrow these gaps. Biden could take swift action on the equity challenges limiting distance learning for disadvantaged students and immediately call for the modernization of the federal E-Rate program to promote home access for disconnected students. New leadership at the Federal Communications Commission will also advance the Biden-Harris agenda.

More Support For an Open Internet

Both Biden and Harris are also likely to reinvigorate discussions around net neutrality, given the Trump FCC’s repeal of Open Internet Order. Senator Harris has supported net neutrality principles of an open internet in the past and is likely to push for those provisions as a matter of social justice given the role of the internet in broadcasting and sharing the incidents leading to the death of George Floyd. It is likely that she will also work to directly address discriminatory practices or paid prioritization in internet traffic.

Representing Silicon Valley, Harris will be open to working with technology and telecommunications firms but insist that they respect the basic values of an open internet. A Biden-Harris ticket will probably resolve the unsettled debates over federal privacy protections, but Harris may endorse states’ privacy laws, rejecting the possibility of federal preemption. To honor their commitments to their multicultural and multi-generational voting blocs, a Biden-Harris ticket may also aim to find resources that support tech start-ups led by diverse founders.

More Competition but Less Confrontation with China

The next administration’s relationship with China is going to be a major challenge, largely due to the harsh denouncements of the country by the current administration. Right now, U.S. public opinion is skeptical of that country’s government, and many people want tougher action on trade policy, intellectual property and human rights. A Democratic administration is likely to negotiate hard and seek meaningful resolution through joint engagement and consultation between the two countries.

U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden already has discussed the importance of bringing critical supply chains back to the U.S. as a matter of national security, which may follow the course of bans on Chinese companies and products. On other China issues, rather than engaging in unilateral actions, President Biden is likely to work closely with European allies and build an international coalition against practices deemed unfair, unjust and in direct violation of human and civil rights. It is also likely that based on his picks for the lead roles in the commerce and state departments, Chinese technology issues will be considered national security concerns, given the previous privacy and data security vulnerabilities. How Biden and Harris address issues with China may possibly become a rubric for their cybersecurity plans.

It is too early to suggest definitive insights, but the early indications suggest that a Biden-Harris ticket will mix traditional Democratic values with a tougher stance on technology firms.

This piece was originally published on Brookings Institution.

Darrell M. West

Vice President and Director at Governance Studies, Brookings Institution  @DarrWest

Darrell M. West is the vice president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings Institution and holds the Douglas Dillon Chair. He is co-editor-in-chief of TechTank. His current research focuses on artificial intelligence, robotics and the future of work. Prior to coming to Brookings, he was the John Hazen White Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and Director of the Taubman Center for Public Policy at Brown University.

Nicol Turner Lee

Senior Fellow at Governance Studies, Brookings Institution @drturnerlee

Dr. Nicol Turner Lee is a senior fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings Institution, the director of the Center for Technology Innovation and serves as co-editor-in-chief of TechTank. Dr. Turner Lee researches public policy designed to enable equitable access to technology across the U.S. and to harness its power to create change in communities across the world.  Her work also explores global and domestic broadband deployment and internet governance issues.

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