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How Biden can tamp down tech policy dumpster fires

"We need a new rulebook for the tech sector."

How Biden can tamp down tech policy dumpster fires

The Biden administration has a mandate to lead; to do otherwise would leave Big Tech to feel around in the dark for the most logical path forward.

Photo: Jalen Hueser/Unsplash

Of all the things that can be said of former President Donald Trump, it is not a stretch to point out the raging dumpster fire that he left as he departed the nation's capitol on Jan. 20. His term exposed deep problems within our government and institutions, including a remarkable lack of leadership in the technology policy world. He was happier to react and attack companies and individuals he didn't like one tweet at a time than he was to try to chart a path forward.

The backdrop for all of this, of course, is the pandemic that forced our lives online. Every day, extremist voices turned social media into loudspeakers for disinformation and misinformation. Widespread concern over the power of Big Tech led to the filing of major antitrust lawsuits against the industry's biggest players. And Europe yet again rejected the Privacy Shield framework for cross-border data flows, adding an extra layer of complexity for American companies doing business in Europe.

Ironically, despite some of the worst political tension our country has ever endured, there has never before been a better opportunity to advance meaningful tech policy rules with bipartisan support. The Biden administration has a mandate to lead; to do otherwise would leave Big Tech to feel around in the dark for the most logical path forward. As we saw with a president who did not shy away from using technology to his advantage, the results can be disastrous.

So it is time for cooler heads to prevail and agree on one thing: We need a new rulebook for the tech sector. But President Joe Biden can't write it: That duty falls to Congress. Fortunately, on three of the hardest tech policy issues — privacy, competition and content — the seeds of bipartisan law have been planted, and are ready to take root and grow. The missing piece is a little watering in the form of leadership from the executive branch.

On privacy, the competing bills that Sens. Roger Wicker and Maria Cantwell introduced in November 2019 have more in common than not. The "Third Way" report by Rep. Ken Buck identified substantial overlap with the majority staff's competition report. And the bipartisan Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency Act by Sens. Brian Schatz and John Thune is a good starting point for content discussions. It's understandable to be skeptical when President Biden called for unity, but in tech, we're closer than it seems.

However, President Biden can do more than just work with Congress by using the federal government's convening power. Where the previous administration engaged with tech primarily through tweet fiats and CEO dinners, the Biden administration should bring together the architects of our lived internet experience — tech companies big and small — along with civil society organizations and researchers who study the internet's problems. This strategy of multi-stakeholder processes has had a positive impact for a range of cybersecurity and privacy issues in past administrations, including new codes of conduct and the production of evidence and data leading to more informed policymaking. Now it's time to tackle content policy and competition from the same playbook, to help move beyond shouting matches and toward a deeper mutual understanding and, eventually, trust.

We also need a great deal of trust-building and relationship repair globally, and foreign policy remains the purview of the executive branch. President Biden can and should engage in active diplomacy with other governments pushing the boundaries of existing tech policy paradigms, including the EU, India and the United Kingdom. Shared themes are beginning to emerge, including consumer protection in content policy and interoperability in competition, and active steps to cultivate those points of intersection and shape them to produce pro-market, pro-consumer outcomes would add great value. Even for those policy issues where our laws ultimately land in different places, having open dialogue makes it easier to build bridges. We need more bridges — and fewer shields — in our international tech policy relationships.

And as difficult as passing good laws can be, enforcing technically complex rules is often even harder, particularly for agencies staffed with far more lawyers than computer scientists. The TechCongress program, which places technologists as full-time staff in the House and Senate, has had a huge impact on the legislative process. The Biden administration should look for similar ways to integrate technologists into more executive functions, and generally to ensure that implementing agencies have the resources they need to engage directly with the systems, products and markets being regulated.

The United States was once a global leader in internet policy. But that hasn't been the case for years. If the tech policy dumpster fire is left to burn, the American public and political environments will continue to fester, and Europe and the rest of the world will continue to advance their own regulatory agendas, from which American companies and internet users will not be immune. The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the centrality of the internet in our lives, and its role and importance will persist even as we return to travel. America has an opportunity right now to lead and to help make the internet better, and we should seize it.

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