Source Code: Your daily look at what matters in tech.

source-codesource codeauthorEmily BirnbaumNoneWant your finger on the pulse of everything that's happening in tech? Sign up to get David Pierce's daily newsletter.64fd3cbe9f
×

Get access to Protocol

Your information will be used in accordance with our Privacy Policy

I’m already a subscriber
Protocol | Policy

Tech legislation to watch in 2021

Maybe they'll actually get something done this year.

Tech legislation to watch in 2021

2021 brings a new presidential administration, a new Congress and maybe — maybe — legislation that actually goes somewhere this time.

Photo: Joshua Roberts/Getty Images

When it comes to tech policy, 2020 was not exactly a banner year for "getting things done." Washington focused on hearings, bills that went nowhere, negotiations that hit roadblocks, executive orders that didn't amount to much and then some more hearings.

But 2021 brings a new presidential administration, a new Congress and maybe — maybe — legislation that actually goes somewhere this time. Here are the big pieces to watch.

Economic stimulus package

President-elect Joe Biden and his advisers have made it clear that passing an enormous economic stimulus package will be one of their 100-day priorities, with an emphasis on recovery and addressing deep technological fissures exposed by the pandemic.

And the tech industry sees an opening to make some money, particularly when it comes to government modernization efforts and broadband. A new economic package will almost certainly include billions of dollars for internet access and affordability in an effort to get more people online during a pandemic that has highlighted the severity of the so-called digital divide.

"One of the focuses of an economic package at the beginning of next Congress will be finding a deal on how to increase the availability and affordability of high-speed internet access," said Aaron Cooper, vice president of global policy at software trade group BSA.

Cooper said there's also increasing interest in Congress to devoting some resources toward shoring up states' cyber defenses and technological capabilities after COVID-19 strained government systems, like state unemployment websites.

Lawmakers this month passed a COVID-19 relief package that includes $7 billion for broadband funding, and Biden will inevitably try to go further.

Federal privacy legislation

Negotiations around a federal privacy bill broke down in 2020 amid bitter partisan disagreements, and lawmakers ultimately failed to pass legislation before California's privacy law (and, subsequently, Proposition 24) went into effect. Talks were sidelined as COVID-19 took priority in Congress and efforts to slip privacy provisions into larger packages ultimately failed.

But Hill aides and industry watchers said they remain optimistic that the Biden administration could usher in a new chapter in privacy talks, and Congress could at least inch closer toward passing a bipartisan privacy bill, a complex and delicate process that was always expected to take years.

"In terms of top priorities, baseline privacy legislation is a very likely candidate in part because there's been so much progress towards agreement over the course of the past Congress," said Alexandra Reeve Givens, president and CEO of the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Discussions will likely begin with the partisan privacy bills introduced by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker and ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell last year, and negotiators will seek to hash out differences between the parties on whether the legislation should preempt state laws and allow individuals to sue companies over privacy violations.

Cantwell recently put her stake in the ground, criticizing the Republican-backed privacy bills for "allow[ing] companies to maintain the status quo, burying important disclosure information in long contracts, hiding where consumer data is sold, and changing the use of consumer data without their consent."

Any bill would necessitate serious bipartisan and bicameral negotiations, but it will be important to see how the Biden White House chooses to get involved. After all, of the key players in privacy talks, Cameron Kerry is the younger brother of close Biden confidante John Kerry.

Platform Accountability and Consumer Transparency (PACT) Act

Of all the Section 230 proposals out there, the PACT Act likely has the most promising prospects, if only because it has buy-in from Republicans, Democrats and — potentially — Mark Zuckerberg.

The PACT Act, introduced by Democratic Sen. Brian Schatz and Republican Sen. John Thune, would require online platforms including Facebook and Google to provide more transparency around their content moderation decisions and policies, which Zuckerberg said he's open to, in theory.

""I've long believed Section 230 was ripe for reform, and I believe the bipartisan PACT is the most effective way to do it," Thune said. "I do intend to reintroduce it early next year with Sen. Schatz, and our staffs have been meeting regularly to optimize the language of the bill as we plan for reintroduction."

And it's the only proposal, other than the controversial EARN IT Act, that touts signatories from both parties.

"Its focus on increased transparency is very noncontroversial and a very promising aspect to include in a 230 bill," said Ashley Johnson, a research analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation.

The PACT Act will be a reasonable starting place, but it's unclear if Republicans and Democrats will be able to — or even genuinely want to — find common ground when it comes to Section 230.

"I'd predict we're just going to see more theater here, because Section 230 is the political prop that everyone gets to use to rant and rave about their frustrations," said Berin Szoka, president and founder of TechFreedom.

It might be particularly difficult after Trump nearly blew up negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act over his demand for a Section 230 repeal.

"I think the angle of both parties is radically different [in the 230 debate] and the president turning up the temperature doesn't really bring Democrats to the table in a more meaningful way," said one House Democratic staffer.

Antitrust

The House Judiciary Committee's 449-page report will certainly lay the groundwork for an antitrust agenda in the new Congress, and Biden's team has already been briefed on its contents. Democratic Rep. David Cicilline plans to introduce multiple pieces of antitrust-related legislation next year and remains optimistic that there will be some bipartisan buy-in.

Currently, the most bipartisan proposals on updating antitrust laws revolve around giving more resources to the FTC and DOJ, and it's going to be harder to get farther-reaching legislation through a Republican Senate.

One tech lobbyist said the House Judiciary Committee report's influence will go deeper than that — it will set up sweeping expectations for federal regulators as they approach the future of antitrust in digital markets. Meanwhile, the ongoing cases against Facebook and Google could strengthen the argument for new antitrust laws as they reveal the limits of the centuries-old statutes.

"The House Judiciary Committee has shown there's a lot of energy around competition and antitrust enforcement," Givens said. "One potential area of agreement is around increased resources for the agencies, including civil fining authority."

Gig economy

During his campaign, Biden staunchly threw his support behind gig workers, pledging to work with Congress to establish a federal standard modeled on the so-called "ABC Test," which would establish gig workers as employees.

"The ABC test will mean many more workers will get the legal protections and benefits they rightfully should receive," Biden's campaign website reads.

It's going to be nearly impossible for Democrats to move that legislation through the Senate, so Biden will have to pull levers at the National Labor Relations Board and Department of Labor to shore up gig worker rights.

But aides with the House Committee on Education and Labor said lawmakers intend to reintroduce the gig worker-friendly PRO Act, which passed the House last year, and will remain in touch with the Biden administration to push forward priorities.

It's possible that moderate Democrats and Republicans will seek to hash out a compromise bill incorporating some of the wishes from gig companies and workers. But it would be a heavy lift for them to push that legislation through both chambers, particularly during the union-friendly Biden administration.

Power

The video game industry is bracing for its Netflix and Spotify moment

Subscription gaming promises to upend gaming. The jury's out on whether that's a good thing.

It's not clear what might fall through the cracks if most of the biggest game studios transition away from selling individual games and instead embrace a mix of free-to-play and subscription bundling.

Image: Christopher T. Fong/Protocol

Subscription services are coming for the game industry, and the shift could shake up the largest and most lucrative entertainment sector in the world. These services started as small, closed offerings typically available on only a handful of hardware platforms. Now, they're expanding to mobile phones and smart TVs, and promising to radically change the economics of how games are funded, developed and distributed.

Of the biggest companies in gaming today, Amazon, Apple, Electronic Arts, Google, Microsoft, Nintendo, Nvidia, Sony and Ubisoft all operate some form of game subscription. Far and away the most ambitious of them is Microsoft's Xbox Game Pass, featuring more than 100 games for $9.99 a month and including even brand-new titles the day they release. As of January, Game Pass had more than 18 million subscribers, and Microsoft's aggressive investment in a subscription future has become a catalyst for an industrywide reckoning on the likelihood and viability of such a model becoming standard.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Over the last year, financial institutions have experienced unprecedented demand from their customers for exposure to cryptocurrency, and we've seen an inflow of institutional dollars driving bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies to record prices. Some banks have already launched cryptocurrency programs, but many more are evaluating the market.

That's why we've created the Crypto Maturity Model: an iterative roadmap for cryptocurrency product rollout, enabling financial institutions to evaluate market opportunities while addressing compliance requirements.

Keep Reading Show less
Caitlin Barnett, Chainanalysis
Caitlin’s legal and compliance experience encompasses both cryptocurrency and traditional finance. As Director of Regulation and Compliance at Chainalysis, she helps leading financial institutions strategize and build compliance programs in order to adopt cryptocurrencies and offer new products to their customers. In addition, Caitlin helps facilitate dialogue with regulators and the industry on key policy issues within the cryptocurrency industry.
Protocol | Policy

Lina Khan wants to hear from you

The new FTC chair is trying to get herself, and the sometimes timid tech-regulating agency she oversees, up to speed while she still can.

Lina Khan is trying to push the FTC to corral tech companies

Photo: Graeme Jennings/AFP via Getty Images

"When you're in D.C., it's very easy to lose connection with the very real issues that people are facing," said Lina Khan, the FTC's new chair.

Khan made her debut as chair before the press on Wednesday, showing up to a media event carrying an old maroon book from the agency's library and calling herself a "huge nerd" on FTC history. She launched into explaining how much she enjoys the open commission meetings she's pioneered since taking over in June. That's especially true of the marathon public comment sessions that have wrapped up each of the two meetings so far.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Protocol | Fintech

Beyond Robinhood: Stock exchange rebates are under scrutiny too

Some critics have compared the way exchanges attract orders from customers to the payment for order flow system that has enriched retail brokers.

The New York Stock Exchange is now owned by the Intercontinental Exchange.

Photo: Aditya Vyas/Unsplash

As questions pile up about how powerful and little-known Wall Street entities rake in profits from stock trading, the exchanges that handle vast portions of everyday trading are being scrutinized for how they make money, too.

One mechanism in particular — exchange rebates, or payments from the exchanges for getting certain trades routed to them — has raised concerns with regulators and members of Congress.

Keep Reading Show less
Tomio Geron

Tomio Geron ( @tomiogeron) is a San Francisco-based reporter covering fintech. He was previously a reporter and editor at The Wall Street Journal, covering venture capital and startups. Before that, he worked as a staff writer at Forbes, covering social media and venture capital, and also edited the Midas List of top tech investors. He has also worked at newspapers covering crime, courts, health and other topics. He can be reached at tgeron@protocol.com or tgeron@protonmail.com.

Protocol | Workplace

The Activision Blizzard lawsuit has opened the floodgates

An employee walkout, a tumbling stock price and damning new reports of misconduct.

Activision Blizzard is being sued for widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination.

Photo: Bloomberg/Getty Images

Activision Blizzard is in crisis mode. The World of Warcraft publisher was the subject of a shocking lawsuit filed by California's Department of Fair Employment and Housing last week over claims of widespread sexism, harassment and discrimination against female employees. The resulting fallout has only intensified by the day, culminating in a 500-person walkout at the headquarters of Blizzard Entertainment in Irvine on Wednesday.

The company's stock price has tumbled nearly 10% this week, and CEO Bobby Kotick acknowledged in a message to employees Tuesday that Activision Blizzard's initial response was "tone deaf." Meanwhile, there has been a continuous stream of new reports unearthing horrendous misconduct as more and more former and current employees speak out about the working conditions and alleged rampant misogyny at one of the video game industry's largest and most powerful employers.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt
Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.
Latest Stories