Protocol | Policy

Regulation is coming in 2021. Here’s how Big Tech is preparing for it.

Companies know that the heat is only going to increase this year.

Regulation is coming in 2021. Here’s how Big Tech is preparing for it.

2021 promises to be a turbulent year for Big Tech.

Photo: Ting Shen/Getty Images

The open internet. Section 230. China. Internet access. 5G. Antitrust. When we asked the policy shops at some of the biggest and most powerful tech companies to identify their 2021 policy priorities, these were the words they had in common.

Each of these issues centers around a common theme. "Despite how tech companies might feel, they've been enjoying a very high innovation phase. They're about to experience a strong regulation phase," said Erika Fisher, Atlassian's general counsel and chief administrative officer. "The question is not if, but how that regulation will be shaped."

Every company is putting their own spin on how they're preparing for that regulation. They know that the regulation heat is only going to increase in 2021, and they are all focused on how to adapt so it does the least harm to their own business models.

Open internet

"The open internet" is by far the most popular way companies frame their focus. For Twitter, protecting the open internet means challenging regulatory frameworks that the company's policy team said harm competition and entrench the power of the biggest companies, according to a Twitter spokesperson. The policy team cited GDPR as an example of a legislative framework that unintentionally hurts the open internet; they argued that while the law increased protections for user privacy, it decreased competition by strengthening large companies.

In the U.S. specifically, Twitter has drilled in on protecting Section 230 as an essential part of that goal. At a Section 230 congressional hearing earlier this year, CEO Jack Dorsey said that Section 230 rollback could collapse the internet as we know it, though he's open to some reforms. Twitter is eager for creative "alternative regulatory paths" that protect competition and don't force companies to frame their decisions around removing or protecting content, according to their spokesperson.

Facebook also framed its policy interests in terms of protecting the internet from increasing barriers. "Governments throughout the world are looking to build digital barriers and impose greater state control on the internet. This drive toward digital protectionism could have a devastating effect on economic recovery across the world," wrote Nick Clegg, Facebook's policy chief, in an email to Protocol.

Global standards

In 2021, Facebook will also be lobbying for multilateral standards around digital taxation, privacy and data portability, among others, according to Clegg.

By multilateral, they mean multicountry and multi-stakeholder, rather than, for example, the digital services tax much-debated in France this year or data portability rules imposed by China on African countries receiving monetary support. Specifically, Clegg plans to urge the U.S., Europe and India to work together to create standards based on shared values.

And Google is also explicitly interested in the same type of international government cooperation. The company refused to identify and break down specific priorities, but their statement still reflected this theme. "As this pandemic has shown, we can't solve big issues alone. This is why we will urge governments to restore multilateralism," said Karen Bhatia, Google's vice president for government affairs and policy.

Access

Beyond the big global regulation and antitrust fights that are coming next year, some companies outlined very specific priorities for U.S. policy. At Amazon and Dell, policy leaders framed some of their focuses around increasing equitable internet access. For Amazon, increasing internet access means an increased focus on the Project Kuiper low-orbit satellite program, which received approval from the FCC in July and is intended to provide cheap internet in places with poor broadband coverage.

"Amazon will be working internationally to achieve licensing in other countries to move this initiative forward," Brian Huseman, Amazon's VP for public policy, said. Amazon's other major policy priorities for 2021 will be pushing for a minimum wage increase to $15 per hour in the U.S. and more ambitious federal climate policy, according to Huseman.

5G

Telecom companies and some big tech players will be mostly focused on 5G next year, including Dell. For Dell's policy team, increasing internet access means lobbying heavily for an "open and interoperable" 5G network. "We would like to see the proper investment and partnerships across public, private and government organizations to advance U.S. leadership in 5G worldwide. The U.S. must drive the innovation and standardization of national 5G infrastructure," said Michael Young, Dell's senior vice president for global government affairs and public policy.

Broadband and data providers like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T will also be zeroing in on the 5G fight, lobbying to end the Pentagon's plan to control the commercial 5G network and instead pushing for the FCC to hold traditional auctions for 5G spectrum, according to an open letter from Jonathan Spalter, the president and CEO of trade group USTelecom. The more traditional spectrum-auction method would give telecom companies more control than the "nationalized" 5G Pentagon proposal (former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been a key advocate of the nationalized plan).

Microsoft and Apple both declined to share their 2021 policy priorities.

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