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What to expect from Biden-Harris on tech policy, platform regulation, and China

Brookings | Darrell M. West and Nicol Turner Lee | Au 13, 2020

Biden Harris - What to expect from Biden-Harris on tech policy, platform regulation, and ChinaDemocratic candidate Joe Biden’s decision to put U.S. Senator Kamala Harris on his ticket means that we now have the fall lineup against Republicans Donald Trump and Mike Pence. Biden’s historic choice to put a prominent and well-respected African American woman on the ticket as his vice presidential selection guarantees high-level attention on Democrats’ bid to reclaim the White House.

What is less clear, however, is what the Biden-Harris combination will mean for technology policy, internet platform regulation, emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), and relations with China. Harris has been critical of technology companies on several issues, but also has close personal ties with a number of leading tech executives. In looking at Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan for economic recovery and other papers, though, several likely principles and projects stand out, which are outlined below. Taken together, these principles may form the basis of a new policy regime for the technology sector that shifts the prevailing guardrails in meaningful ways.

Greater tech sector regulation

The mounting techlash against internet platforms outlined in a new Brookings book, Turning Point:  Policymaking in the Era of Artificial Intelligence means a Biden-Harris administration is likely to move towards greater regulation of the technology sector. That includes stronger action on competition policy, antitrust enforcement, privacy policy, cybersecurity, and Section 230 reforms.

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This is consistent with information compiled during the House Antitrust Subcommittee investigation into big tech firms like Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google. In a recent hearing, legislators accused these firms of engaging in anticompetitive practices, predatory behavior, and using their market power to buy or undermine competitors. In a forthcoming report, Democrats are likely to propose stronger enforcement of these issues and greater support for small and medium-sized tech firms, with the goal of improving upon the consumer welfare standard and maintaining greater competition in the marketplace.

In his tenure during the Obama administration, Biden was quite critical of Silicon Valley, which may still be the case if he wins the election. Senator Harris, with a background as a skilled prosecutor and interrogator, may follow suit to ensure the appropriate level of enforcement against practices not deemed to be in the public interest. Both leaders may seek to address these issues within the context of big tech’s role in non-technology issues, including election interference.

Tougher anti-bias enforcement

Another area of synergy on the Biden-Harris ticket will be in addressing the lack of diverse workforces in the technology industry and the biases that appear in AI systems, which amplify stereotypes and lead to disparate impacts for protected groups. As a prosecutor, Senator Harris will most likely promote algorithmic accountability and transparency, especially in areas like criminal justice, employment, housing, health care, and education. A Biden-Harris administration will lend support to tougher anti-bias rules for the digital economy and stronger enforcement against internet platforms that fail to comply with civil rights and other data privacy protections.

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In their efforts to address their past and current positions on criminal justice and policing, both Biden and Harris are more likely to support stronger guardrails on the use of facial recognition and other surveillance technologies, particularly among law enforcement and border security officials. Senator Harris may also address the technical flaws in the accurate identification of diverse populations in facial recognition.

More support for worker rights in the gig economy

One of the fault lines in the emerging gig economy has been questions surrounding worker rights and the use of independent contractors by tech companies. Right now, companies like Uber and Lyft classify workers as independent contractors and do not provide health or retirement benefits despite the apparent branding of workers’ vehicles and clothing. Biden’s economic plan calls for an “updated social contract that treats American workers and working families as essential at all times, not just times of crisis – with higher wages, stronger benefits and fair and safe workplaces.” Given the economic vulnerabilities created by the pandemic, a Biden-Harris ticket will look closer at worker reclassification and protections to promote more economic security for workers.

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