yesAdam KovacevichNone

Get access to Protocol

I’ve already subscribed

Will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

How the tech industry should navigate the Biden administration

Tech faces more potential regulation than perhaps ever before.

How the tech industry should navigate the Biden administration

The government's anxiety about the tech industry's power has manifested in over-broad reactions, writes Adam Kovacevich.

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.


Making the economy work for Black entrepreneurs

Funding for Black-owned startups needs to grow. That's just the start.

"There is no quick fix to close the racial wealth and opportunity gaps, but there are many ways companies can help," said Mastercard's Michael Froman.

Photo: DigitalVision/Getty Images

Michael Froman is the vice chairman and president of Strategic Growth for Mastercard.

When Tanya Van Court's daughter shared her 9th birthday wish list — a bike and an investment account — Tanya had a moment of inspiration. She wondered whether helping more kids get excited about saving for goals and learning simple financial principles could help them build a pathway to financial security. With a goal of reaching every kid in America, she founded Goalsetter, a savings and financial literacy app for kids. Last month, Tanya brought in backers including NBA stars Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, raising $3.9 million in seed funding.

Keep Reading Show less
Michael Froman
Michael Froman serves as vice chairman and president, Strategic Growth for Mastercard. He and his team drive inclusive growth efforts and partner across public and private sectors to address major societal and economic issues. From 2013 to 2017, Mike served as the U.S. trade representative, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser and negotiator on international trade and investment issues. He is a distinguished fellow of the Council on Foreign Relations and a member of the board of directors of The Walt Disney Company.
Sponsored Content

Building better relationships in the age of all-remote work

How Stripe, Xero and ModSquad work with external partners and customers in Slack channels to build stronger, lasting relationships.

Image: Original by Damian Zaleski

Every business leader knows you can learn the most about your customers and partners by meeting them face-to-face. But in the wake of Covid-19, the kinds of conversations that were taking place over coffee, meals and in company halls are now relegated to video conferences—which can be less effective for nurturing relationships—and email.

Email inboxes, with hard-to-search threads and siloed messages, not only slow down communication but are also an easy target for scammers. Earlier this year, Google reported more than 18 million daily malware and phishing emails related to Covid-19 scams in just one week and more than 240 million daily spam messages.

Keep Reading Show less

Bad news for Big Tech: Bipartisan agreement on antitrust reform

Democrats and Republicans found common ground during the first House hearing on antitrust of the new Congress. Here's what that means for tech giants.

The House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee held their first hearing of the 117th Congress.

Photo: Tom Williams/Getty Images

During the first House antitrust hearing of the new Congress, Democratic chairman David Cicilline and Republican ranking member Ken Buck made it clear they intend to forge ahead with a series of bipartisan reform efforts that could cut into the power of the largest technology companies.

"We will work on a serious bipartisan basis to advance these reforms together," Cicilline said during his opening remarks Thursday.

Keep Reading Show less
Emily Birnbaum

Emily Birnbaum ( @birnbaum_e) is a tech policy reporter with Protocol. Her coverage focuses on the U.S. government's attempts to regulate one of the most powerful industries in the world, with a focus on antitrust, privacy and politics. Previously, she worked as a tech policy reporter with The Hill after spending several months as a breaking news reporter. She is a Bethesda, Maryland native and proud Kenyon College alumna.

Transforming 2021

Blockchain, QR codes and your phone: the race to build vaccine passports

Digital verification systems could give people the freedom to work and travel. Here's how they could actually happen.

One day, you might not need to carry that physical passport around, either.

Photo: CommonPass

There will come a time, hopefully in the near future, when you'll feel comfortable getting on a plane again. You might even stop at the lounge at the airport, head to the regional office when you land and maybe even see a concert that evening. This seemingly distant reality will depend upon vaccine rollouts continuing on schedule, an open-sourced digital verification system and, amazingly, the blockchain.

Several countries around the world have begun to prepare for what comes after vaccinations. Swaths of the population will be vaccinated before others, but that hasn't stopped industries decimated by the pandemic from pioneering ways to get some people back to work and play. One of the most promising efforts is the idea of a "vaccine passport," which would allow individuals to show proof that they've been vaccinated against COVID-19 in a way that could be verified by businesses to allow them to travel, work or relax in public without a great fear of spreading the virus.

Keep Reading Show less
Mike Murphy

Mike Murphy ( @mcwm) is the director of special projects at Protocol, focusing on the industries being rapidly upended by technology and the companies disrupting incumbents. Previously, Mike was the technology editor at Quartz, where he frequently wrote on robotics, artificial intelligence, and consumer electronics.


The PRO Act hurts American competitiveness

"The U.S. needs to focus on helping, not hurting, small businesses," says CTA president and CEO Gary Shapiro.

Nancy Pelosi is among the PRO Act's supporters in Congress.

Photo: Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/Getty Images

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association.

Should employers be required to give up personal and private information about their employees to union organizers? If 216 Congressional Democrats and two Republicans get their way, employers would have to give a name, phone number and home address to any union official claiming to want to organize their facility. As if anyone in America wants to be visited in their home by a union official financially incentivized to make them sign a unionization petition.

Keep Reading Show less
Gary Shapiro
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer technology companies. He's also a New York Times bestselling author.
Latest Stories