The ‘Biden Tech Doctrine’ — one year in
The New York Times called Barack Obama “America’s first truly digital president.” After harnessing social media on the campaign trail, he staffed his administration with tech industry veterans, championed net neutrality, and recognized the importance of encryption. He spoke at SXSW — and even held his own version on the White House Lawn.
But in the five years since Obama left office, both politics and the tech industry have changed. Policymakers aren’t as enamored with tech as they were then, and candidate Joe Biden adopted a more wary approach toward the industry.
As we move past the first anniversary of his administration taking office, it’s a good moment to start defining the Biden Tech Doctrine based on what we’ve seen so far.
An ‘older brother’ approach toward Big Tech
There’s a dynamic in some sibling relationships — a big brother who squabbles with his younger siblings at home but is the first to defend them when someone picks on them at school. It’s a dynamic that describes President Biden’s relationship to tech perfectly.
Domestically, the White House targeted tech industry competition in an executive order last year. Various agencies of the administration are currently suing or investigating Amazon, Apple, Google, and Meta. White House officials and Biden himself have periodically voiced their unhappiness with various big tech firms.
But abroad, the administration has stood up firmly to other governments, particularly to Europe, that have singled out America’s tech sector for discriminatory treatment.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen brokered a historic international tax deal to counter European countries’ efforts to levy “digital services taxes” on U.S. tech firms. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo has pushed back on the discriminatory impact of Europe’s proposed Digital Markets Act, aimed squarely at U.S. big tech.
Similarly, candidate Biden criticized Section 230 and platforms’ content decisions — but when Donald Trump filed a baseless lawsuit against tech services for “deplatforming” him, Biden’s DOJ intervened (as is custom) to defend Section 230.
Just like an older sibling, the Biden administration is holding tech firms accountable, while wanting the American “family” to be treated fairly in the world and in the courts.
Regulators with aggressive bark, uncertain bite
Biden appointed a number of aggressive tech critics in key regulator positions, including Lina Khan at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), Gary Gensler at the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), and Rohit Chopra at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).
Khan’s FTC has sued Facebook for its years-old acquisitions of Instagram and Whatsapp, and her supporters are encouraging her to sue Amazon over its MGM deal. But the FTC was slapped down in court at a surprisingly early stage over its Facebook case, failing to prove the company has a monopoly position.
Similarly, Gensler has given speeches criticizing the nascent crypto industry, brought suit against stablecoin service Ripple, and threatened suit over Coinbase’s planned lending service. Rather than issue any proposed regulations for the crypto industry, he’s attempting to regulate through lawsuits.
And Chopra at CFPB has made clear his skepticism of new fintech providers, despite the ways that many tech services are expanding opportunity for those left behind or even preyed upon by traditional finance.
Expect these agencies to bring high-profile cases in 2022, with implications that Obama-era enforcers were too timid. But many of these ill-advised cases will likely fail in federal courts because they lack solid foundation in the law or facts, leaving regulators with more martyr points than victories. After their ambitious cases fail, will they pursue more winnable, incremental cases — or start rulemakings and invite comment?
Biden’s administration has bet big on investments for the future, including $65 billion for broadband investments in its infrastructure package; backing a U.S. competitiveness strategy to compete against China; and developing an “Alliance for the Future of the Internet” to promote a global open web.
These are important steps for the U.S. to win the future.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg could take bolder steps to unleash autonomous vehicles, delivery drones, vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, and widespread adoption of electric vehicles — technologies where the U.S. is poised to lead.
One year in, we’re seeing the outlines of a Biden tech doctrine — focused on accessibility and industry accountability, but demanding other governments treat U.S. tech firms fairly. I hope year two sees his administration harnessing tech’s power for good to advance American ideals around the world.
Adam Kovacevich is the founder of Chamber of Progress, a new center-left tech industry policy coalition promoting technology’s progressive future; corporate partners for Chamber of Progress include Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.