Politics

Biden vs. Bernie: Who's tougher on tech?

The tech industry apparently really doesn't want Bernie Sanders to be president, but would a President Joe Biden be any more pro tech?

Joe Biden was in California on Super Tuesday. The former vice president had a very good night.

Joe Biden was in California on Super Tuesday. The former vice president had a very, very good night.

Photo: Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images

And then there were two.

Following a cascade of dropouts over the last week and a Super Tuesday surge for Vice President Joe Biden, the once-sprawling Democratic field has narrowed down to two frontrunners: Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. Over the course of the presidential campaign — and their decades-long careers in politics — both candidates have had harsh words for big tech companies and the billionaires who run them. But what about their actual records and plans?

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Here's how Biden and Sanders stack up when it comes to how they would govern the tech industry.

On taxes

Sanders' tax proposals have taken direct aim at tech giants in recent years. In 2018, the senator sponsored a bill called the Stop Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies Act, or the Stop BEZOS Act for short. Yeah. That Bezos. It would have taxed Amazon and other corporate giants an amount equal to what their employees were receiving in public funding to supplement low wages.

More recently, the CEO & Worker Pension Fairness Act, which he co-sponsored with Sen. Chris Van Hollen, would tax nonqualified stock options when they vest, not when they're exercised, for employees who make more than $130,000 a year and have more than $100,000 of Incentive Stock Options. Under such a plan, some tech executives who haven't cashed in their options yet might get hit with hefty taxes on that money anyway, a notion not wildly popular in the industry, to put it mildly.

And as part of his presidential campaign, Sanders has proposed a wealth tax on the richest 180,000 households in the country. It starts with a 1% tax on married couples with a net worth above $32 million and caps out at an 8% tax on couples with more than $8 billion in net worth. Given that eight out of the top 10 richest people in the country made their money in tech, Sanders' plan would hit tech billionaires' bank accounts hard.

Biden, on the other hand, doesn't single out individuals as much with his tax plan, so tech leaders' personal pocket books wouldn't be as affected. But he has floated a plan that would impose a 15 percent minimum tax on giant corporations like Amazon and Netflix, which currently pay little to no taxes due to tax breaks from their corporate investments. Biden has also proposed imposing sanctions on countries like Ireland that, as he puts it, "facilitate illegal corporate tax avoidance and engage in harmful tax competition." Apple, for one, is infamous for seeking out tax shelters overseas.

On the internet's safe harbor law

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act protects online companies from being held liable for the things other people post on their platforms. In 2018, Congress passed an exemption known as FOSTA/SESTA, which says companies can be held accountable for promoting or facilitating sex trafficking. Sanders voted in support of that legislation, but has since sponsored a bill to study FOSTA/SESTA's impact on sex workers.

Still, when asked by Vox whether tech platforms ought to be held accountable for misinformation and hate speech, Sanders sought out a middle ground. "[I] will work with experts and advocates to ensure that these large, profitable corporations are held responsible when dangerous activity occurs on their watch, while protecting the fundamental right of free speech in this country and making sure right-wing groups don't abuse regulation to advance their agenda," he said.

Biden, meanwhile, stunned the tech world when he told The New York Times that he wanted to repeal Section 230 entirely, during a lengthy rant about Facebook and its CEO Mark Zuckerberg. "It should be revoked because it is not merely an internet company. It is propagating falsehoods they know to be false, and we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy," Biden said. He went on to argue that Zuckerberg himself should be subject to civil liability in those cases.

On antitrust

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was the first to release a plan to break up big tech companies, forcing other candidates in the race to grapple with how they would deal with tech giants' corporate consolidation. Sanders has said that, as president, he would task the Federal Trade Commission with spearheading antitrust enforcement against tech giants.

"When [I am] in the White House, [I] will reinvigorate the FTC and appoint an attorney general who will aggressively investigate and break up these tech giants and other conglomerates that have monopolized nearly every sector of our economy," Sanders told Vox last year. "These corporate giants control too much of what we see, hear and read online, and must be subjected to regulation and antitrust authority."

Biden has been more circumspect in his approach to antitrust issues. He told The Associated Press last spring that breaking up big tech is "something we should take a really hard look at," but that it would be "premature" to make any definitive declaration on the topic. During his time in the Senate, however, Biden did join with dozens of Democrats, and even a few Republicans, in co-sponsoring a bill that opposed a Federal Communications Commission rule allowing for more consolidation of media conglomerates.

On privacy

Sanders has taken a hard line against government spying on American citizens. He voted against the Patriot Act when it was first passed in 2001, and then voted no for its reauthorization in both the House and Senate. That law gave the government sweeping surveillance powers, which Sanders has repeatedly condemned. In 2013, after Edward Snowden leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency that shed new light on the government's mass surveillance programs, Sanders introduced legislation to curtail unchecked data mining by law enforcement and intelligence agencies.

He's been less vocal about how privacy laws should govern the private sector, except to say that "there should be strict accountability and oversight over the collection and sale of consumer data." He's also argued that CEOs of companies like Equifax that experience major data breaches ought to be held personally accountable. Speaking of Equifax, Sanders would replace credit reporting agencies with a public credit registry.

Unlike Sanders, Biden has been more permissive of government surveillance. Even before he voted for the Patriot Act, Biden introduced a counterterrorism bill in 1994 that would have expanded government surveillance capabilities. Like Sanders, however, his record on regulating the private sector with regard to data privacy is less clear. In an interview with the Times, Biden did say "we should be worried about the lack of privacy" in the tech sector and that "we should be setting standards not unlike the Europeans are doing relative to privacy."

On broadband

Both Biden and Sanders want to expand broadband access in rural America. Biden's infrastructure plan would set aside $20 billion for high-speed broadband in unserved and underserved areas.

Sanders unveiled a sweeping $150 billion plan to provide high-speed internet for all as part of the Green New Deal. Sanders has also vowed to break up internet service providers and cable giants, bar ISPs from also providing content, and require that ISPs offer a robust basic internet plan at an affordable price.

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On trade

One of the biggest differentiators between Biden and Sanders is their position on trade. As a senator, Biden famously voted in support of the North American Free Trade Agreement; as vice president, he supported the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Tech giants and their lobbying groups have pushed for such free trade deals, casting them as vital to their global growth. But Sanders has condemned both deals as damaging to American workers, by encouraging corporate giants to ship jobs overseas. Most recently, Sanders became the only presidential candidate to vote against the Trump administration's renegotiated United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA. If he's elected, Sanders has vowed to "immediately" renegotiate the deal.

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