How the tech industry should navigate the Biden administration
Tech faces more potential regulation than perhaps ever before.
Photo: Joe Raedle
During President Obama's eight years in power, the tech industry and administration fell hard for each other. Now, in the Biden era, the relationship is about to get more complicated.
The Obama administration embodied the ethos of tech: curious, optimistic, win-win. His administration employed many veterans of the technology industry, and tech industry officials met frequently with administration officials and the president himself.
But over the past decade, tech's relationship with policymakers has naturally evolved beyond the honeymoon stage. The government's anxiety about the industry's power has unfortunately manifested itself in over-broad reactions, like proposing abolition of Section 230, unionization of all gig workers and breaking up big companies. It's as if the tech industry has left its dirty laundry on the floor, and instead of going to couples counseling, policymakers are threatening divorce.
There is little denying that the tech industry is about to enter a regulated stage, when the question will shift from whether to regulate at all to how to regulate, and to what extent. As Benedict Evans notes, all powerful industries reach this point eventually.
But as the tech industry reaches this moment, it's in for a rude awakening: It'll find the collaborative spirit of the Obama years has shifted to a polite wariness.
Biden campaign veterans have raw feelings about social platforms' handling of Trump. Democratic anxiety about corporate power that was previously aimed at oil, pharmaceuticals and Wall Street is increasingly aimed at tech. Some policymakers want to constrain the power of the biggest companies, but nearly every legislative idea they put forward would create collateral damage for smaller companies and consumers.
Given these challenges, here's how the technology industry should seek to navigate the Biden era.
1. Ask not what the Biden administration can do for you, but what you can do for it. The country is in historic straits — with a pandemic, long overdue debates about racial equity, attempted insurrection and a need to rebuild our economy. Any tech company that marches into the White House anytime soon with a special pleading will be dismissed as tone deaf.
Instead, it's time for the tech industry to show the country's elected leadership that it can contribute to its most pressing needs. The Biden administration has outlined four major priorities: beating the coronavirus, aggressive action against climate change, tackling racial and income inequality, and "building back better." It's incumbent on the tech industry's top minds to lend their help to these massive problems, and many companies are wisely stepping up to do just that (such as Amazon's offer to aid with vaccine distribution). These four challenges will dominate the rest of 2021.
2. Connect your mission to progressive goals. Many entrepreneurs are developing world-changing ideas that will improve society, but will first require government permission. For those companies seeking the government's blessing in areas like drones, autonomous vehicles, telemedicine or broadband delivery, a wise strategy would be to persuade policymakers that their service helps achieve progressive goals like reducing inequality, reducing carbon emissions and strengthening the country's infrastructure. Also, look at increasing wages and providing more paid leave to demonstrate how much you value your workforce.
3. Wave the U.S. flag. The new administration will face significant negotiations with Europe — which seeks to tax and regulate big U.S. tech firms — and China, which has shut its borders to many U.S. technology services. U.S. technology firms lead our economy in productivity, shareholder value and exports to other countries. Every American should want U.S. tech firms to win the global race against their Chinese competitors. This is a smart time for tech to lock arms with the administration, reaffirm its commitment to U.S. interests and support the restoration of America's leadership in the world.
4. Capitalize on the return of the policymaking process. When a major battle brewed during the Obama years over encryption policies, that administration took the sensible step of running an interagency policymaking process, which balanced national security, consumer privacy and constitutional rights perspectives to reach a consensus policy. After Trump's four years of chaos, it's worth remembering that Democrats like policymaking and treat it seriously. The tech industry should encourage and actively participate in the Biden policymaking process, which should give a healthy airing to all sides of complicated debates like consumer privacy and the future of Section 230.
5. Find opportunities for voluntary wins. As vice president, Joe Biden encouraged the brokering of a voluntary industry code of conduct that cracked down on "rogue," IP-infringing websites. Michelle Obama blessed similar private sector commitments regarding soft drinks in schools. These voluntary approaches succeeded where proposed legislation stalled. Some topics — perhaps content moderation — could be ripe for Biden administration-brokered voluntary action, backed by rigorous government enforcement.
2021 is a far cry from 2009, when the Obama era began. Tech has become more central to Americans' lives in the intervening years, and starry-eyed techno-optimism is now offset by realism that any technology can be abused by bad actors. And most tech industry leaders have internalized the "Peter Parker principle" of needing to carry their power responsibly.
Tech's political honeymoon may be over, but the Biden era should usher in a new chapter in the industry's political maturation: ideally a relationship of mutual respect, open communication and sensible rules — just like any successful long-term marriage.