1. Global changes to social media platforms triggered by U.S. policy
The dip: Section 230 — the infamous tech liability shield — has been a target on both sides of the political aisle for different reasons. Biden has signaled his desire to revoke it entirely.
The dive: Back when CompuServe and AOL ruled the internet, Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It includes Section 230, which provides immunity from liability for services that host content from third parties. Originally intended to define the role of internet service providers as distributors instead of publishers, it would later provide the same protection to social media platforms. Section 230 helped enable the meteoric growth of social media — but it is now attracting criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
Republicans argue that Section 230 allows companies like Facebook and Twitter to censor political speech by removing user content. Democrats argue that it allows for the proliferation of hate speech, disinformation, and nonconsensual pornography. The Trump administration tried new approaches to Section 230 through both Federal Communications Commission (FCC) oversight and a Department of Justice proposal for legislation, but not much came of either effort.
Biden wants to remove Section 230. Derek Bambauer, a professor of internet law at the University of Arizona, said that it is unlikely he will succeed. “I suspect that [a repeal] would be unable to command a majority, given that it is likely to be a divided Congress,” Bambauer told Rest of World.
Still, there is bipartisan desire to at least amend Section 230, which would change the rules governing what content social media companies may allow on their platforms. Given that most of the major social networks are based in the U.S., any enforced changes to those platforms will have ripple effects for content moderation across the world.
2. A new approach to semiconductors
The dip: Biden could continue with Trump’s semiconductor restrictions on China, working with Europe and prioritizing domestic production.
The dive: Apps weren’t the only Chinese technology that Trump targeted — he also placed restrictions on Semiconductor Manufacturing International Corporation (SMIC), China’s most advanced chipmaker, arguing that it was being used by the country’s military.
Cybersecurity expert James Andrew Lewis told Rest of World that the biggest change with the Biden administration will likely be increased collaboration with Europe, which Trump shied away from under his “America First” policy, to put further pressure on China. Biden also plans to increase semiconductor production within the country.
The United States — which has long been a leader in chip production — recently started lagging in semiconductor manufacturing, according to Lewis. He believes there’s strong interest in Washington in increasing production, which could be a rare bipartisan effort in the name of national defense under the Biden administration as part of his “Build Back Better” strategy. If that is the case, then China will be further isolated from other tech leaders in the world.
3. Increasing visa access for high-skilled foreign workers
The dip: In 2020, Trump imposed restrictions on the H-1B visa program, which many U.S. tech companies rely on to recruit international talent. Biden will likely reverse course.
The dive: Immigrants built Silicon Valley. A 2018 study found that more than half of U.S. tech unicorns had at least one immigrant founder. The H-1B visa, which allows U.S. employers to hire foreign workers in specialty occupations, made this possible.
Google, Facebook, and early-stage start-ups rely on the H-1B to bring in foreign engineers, who are increasingly in demand.
In October 2020, the Trump administration announced its most significant immigration overhaul in the name of “making sure American workers are not disadvantaged by foreign labor.”
Bhaskar Chakravorti, the dean of global business at Tufts University’s Fletcher School, expects this to change with the new administration. Vice President–elect Kamala Harris, previously a senator for California, has close ties to Big Tech, and Chakravorti believes she will support the H-1B and other immigration policies favorable to skilled foreign workers. “I expect the Biden administration is going to take a more open-minded view of these things,” he said.
4. Rethinking bans for Chinese apps
The dip: TikTok and WeChat could get a second chance with the Biden administration, although he will have to formulate an approach to foreign apps.
The dive: In August, Trump issued executive orders targeting the two popular Chinese apps, seeking to ban the messaging platform WeChat altogether and demanding that TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, find a U.S. buyer. Nevertheless, the status of both apps in the U.S. remains in limbo. TikTok implied that the government forgot about its attempt to ban the app.
Although Biden deemed TikTok a “matter of genuine concern” back in September, experts believe that his administration will take a more cautious approach. Richard Windsor, the founder of the technology-research firm Radio Free Mobile, believes that ByteDance’s recent push for an extension is a sign that it is hoping to delay the matter until after Inauguration Day “in the hope of a dovish approach from the Biden administration.”
Lewis noted that although the Chinese government uses WeChat for surveillance, TikTok does not represent a security threat. During the Biden administration, foreign apps will remain a challenge for governments worldwide. “Everybody is wrestling with it,” Lewis told Rest of World. “I don’t think it’s going away.”
5. An overhaul of privacy laws
The dip: Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) changed how internet companies operate — and could offer a framework for a national online-privacy law in the U.S.
The dive: Last year, California passed a sweeping privacy act similar to GDPR that gave residents agency in protecting their personal data. Safeguarding net neutrality and passing a national-privacy law could be key to Biden’s tech agenda.
Biden faces an uphill battle in Congress for any major legislation. If he does manage to make significant privacy changes — especially if he pushes executive orders to the limit — it will likely alter how tech companies operate outside of the country as well.
Bambauer told Rest of World that we saw it happen with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Companies like YouTube were forced to adjust policies that applied worldwide to comply with U.S. restrictions, illustrating the global impact of American laws on tech platforms.
6. Antitrust action could reshape tech giants
The dip: Thanks to his administration’s ties to Big Tech, Biden may take a different approach to antitrust cases than Trump has.
The dive: The Department of Justice’s antitrust lawsuit against Google, backed by 11 Republican-controlled states, made a big splash in October. Even if the Department of Justice does not pursue the case during the Biden administration, antitrust action against tech monopolies will remain a major issue — it may just take a different form.
Chakravorti argued that Harris will likely oppose the Google lawsuit, given her Silicon Valley ties. “Everybody agrees that the technology industry is too powerful,” he told Rest of World. “As to how to go about it, there are too many different industries, too many different agencies, and too many different initiatives in place.”
Still, Chakravorti believes that any drastic action taken against companies such as Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, could have unintended consequences for the rest of the world.
During the pandemic, WhatsApp was the primary mode of education for millions of children across the globe — “not by design, but by default,” according to Chakravorti. “Regulators need to keep in mind how that might have an impact on the use of this technology,” he added.
7. The biggest change could be no change at all
The dip: Many assume that Biden will walk back much of what Trump has done. But facing a global pandemic and a constitutional crisis amid a divided political system, technology might be at the bottom of Biden’s agenda.
The dive: From school over WhatsApp to meetings over Zoom, technology has helped the world adjust to Covid-19. “The pandemic has taught us that technology is absolutely something that should be central to everything we consider,” said Chakravorti.
Aside from his strong statement on Section 230, Biden has not betrayed his intentions regarding tech legislation. On topics such as visa restrictions, cybersecurity, and data privacy, he has largely stayed mum. “They don’t seem to have it on the horizon other than making sweeping statements, which suggests they haven’t spent more than 30 seconds thinking about it,” Chakravorti told Rest of World. “It’s unfortunate that the Biden team does not see it as a high priority.”
Aside from other more burning political questions, Biden also faces the likelihood of gridlock in Congress, which could hamstring his efforts. His appointments, especially in the Department of Justice and the FCC, may also offer hints towards his policy moves, and he has already filled his transition team with tech executives.
Even so, Chakravorti believes that Biden should put technology near the top of his domestic-policy agenda. “One relatively innocuous move here has implications on people’s lives and livelihoods everywhere else,” he said.