In a rare bit of bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican lawmakers now agree that Big Tech has gotten too big, too powerful, too quickly.
Consider just the past several months: While the coronavirus has felled countless businesses and put millions of Americans out of work, technology stocks have soared and buoyed an otherwise stagnant stock market, further enriching Silicon Valley executives. Record Amazon profits stand in contrast to the bankruptcies of well-known retailers like J.C. Penney and J. Crew. Netflix added millions of new customers this year, as movie theaters struggle to stay afloat. And Facebook and Google are drawing new advertising dollars as homebound users log more on-screen hours. The list continues.
Big Tech will loom large in the next four years, even if it has been a sideshow so far on the campaign trail. The pandemic has laid bare both the promise of technology — softening the blow of months at home — and its rougher edges, which include the consolidation of power and ever-greater personal data collection.
Whoever claims victory following next week’s election will have to confront, among other things, the exposed gaps in the nation’s broadband network; the urgent need for broad online privacy protections; the rollout of 5G; growing consumer resentment of technologists; and the pitfalls of nascent technologies like self-driving cars, artificial intelligence and facial recognition.
“The next administration cannot take a hands-off position in addressing technology’s place in our day-to-day lives,” said Robert Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank.
Here are some of the most pressing issues facing a Biden or Trump administration:
The indefinite closure of many of the nation’s largest school districts amid the pandemic has put a spotlight on the slapdash state of broadband access. In many rural communities and urban centers, reliable access to the web is either impossible or too expensive. Forcing students to log in to classrooms from McDonald’s parking lots is a national embarrassment. With government services and medical care shifting online, those without access to high-speed networks are destined to slip further behind. The next administration must strive to extend affordable internet access to every corner of the nation.
“Having access to broadband is an economic necessity,” said Senator Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia. “We could have done more to think creatively about how to expand access during the pandemic,” including through wiring more schools and churches, he said.
Flawed federal mapping techniques and a lack of economic incentives for private industry have left as many as 42 million Americans without access to high-speed broadband service, according to one estimate. It’s imperative that the next Congress and president open up funding for a long-term fix.
High-speed wireless 5G networks can help accelerate new uses of mobile technology, like connected vehicles, smart cities and supply chain logistics; ensure speedier and more reliable consumer devices; and set the stage for next-generation tech like smart glasses and in-home robotics. While it is critical that the United States invest in the technology, the nation is already falling behind China, which has devoted billions to subsidizing infrastructure projects.
China has deployed far more 5G base stations nationally than the United States and has helped deliver networking equipment around the globe. President Trump has imposed restrictions on Chinese equipment suppliers like Huawei, but he has not introduced a cohesive U.S. strategy for the development of 5G. In fact, it can be difficult to even find a 5G signal in the United States.
The rollout of the 5G network will require greater collaboration between government and private industry. It will potentially include European infrastructure companies as well as domestic wireless providers. The federal government should continue auctioning wireless spectrum, while also encouraging local governments to remove zoning restrictions that hinder the construction of cell towers and other 5G equipment. Developing a functional national 5G network strategy cannot wait any longer.
Antitrust and ‘Techlash’
The largest technology businesses have been buffeted by bipartisan allegations of monopoly power in recent months. Justice Department officials allege that Google has run afoul of antitrust laws through exclusionary deals for its core web search service, while House lawmakers have concluded, in a scathing report this month, that Google, along with Amazon, Apple and Facebook, wields power akin to that of the robber barons of the 19th century. The companies, the lawmakers said, should be broken up, and antitrust laws should be amended to prevent a similar accumulation of power that can chip away at democratic ideals, worker protections and fair competition.
Consumers, too, are increasingly skeptical of the largest tech companies’ power, particularly their ambitions to control a widening array of markets. As companies like Amazon and Google push into new ventures like banking, logistics and home automation, the “techlash” should spur regulators to consider imposing controls that protect consumers and also allow for innovation.
The next administration ought to weigh whether antitrust laws still contain proper protections for consumers. Rules around acquisitions that are likely to stifle competition should be strengthened and clarified.
Lawmakers from both parties have introduced bills aimed at giving consumers more control over the personal data that technology companies collect, analyze and sell. It is evident that mobile phones in particular gobble up and surrender reams of sensitive data to tech companies, brokers and marketers, with little recourse for consumers.
Europeans, by contrast, enjoy broader protections because of the standard known as General Data Protection Regulation, which gives consumers the right to know what data is being collected about them and the right to prevent certain data from being collected in the first place. American tech companies should have controls in place to extend some of the same protections to American consumers.
“The power differential is entirely in the hands of tech,” said Senator Josh Hawley, a Republican from Missouri. He has proposed legislation limiting the ability of companies to track users around the web.
The next president and Congress should also consider rules forcing companies to require users to opt in to data collection, placing limitations on targeted advertising, broadening individual rights to sue over privacy violations and establishing a muscular enforcement apparatus.
Artificial intelligence underpins promising new technologies like self-driving cars and manufacturing automation, and holds the potential to accelerate innovation in a host of industries. But A.I. is also still nascent and unproven for applications like facial recognition, text review and voice assistants, which can harbor biases that unduly affect minorities, women and lower-income Americans. A.I. also holds the potential to drastically alter employment, and it could push truck drivers, production line workers and others out of their jobs. Lawmakers will have to find a balance between pushing the technology forward and protecting jobs.
Consumers need regulators to ensure that artificial intelligence replacing human review does not contribute to inequities, including in police enforcement, hiring, housing, health care and education. The software has already been used in attempts to manipulate voters through deep fakes and the rapid spread of misinformation. Sensible policies, like setting standards for data collection and developing a transparent review process for A.I.-backed systems at federal agencies, could go a long way toward preventing the misuse of the software.
Social Media and Section 230
Politicians are openly debating what to do about the liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Broadly, it allows internet companies to police their own sites, while also avoiding liability for nearly all of the user-created content they host, and it is the backbone of how the web functions today. Republican lawmakers, including Mr. Hawley, contend that Section 230 gives tech companies blanket immunity to stifle free speech, since posts can be removed and their sharing can be blocked. Democrats say the law allows companies to skirt responsibility for the misinformation that flourishes on their sites.
Joe Biden has called for Section 230 protections to be revoked entirely, as has President Trump, who signed an executive order in May for a federal review of the statute. A recent Senate hearing with the heads of Google, Facebook and Twitter unfortunately lacked substantive discussion around sensible solutions for regulating social media. The executives promised greater transparency around their decisions to remove or block content, but it is hard to imagine a truly honest accounting when such an accounting would go against their business interests.
Eliminating the law entirely would probably cause Facebook, Twitter and others to more aggressively police their sites, for fear of liability claims. But that could result in unintended consequences, like the suppression of artistic content and limitations on listings sites like Amazon, Nextdoor and Craigslist. It is clear that the nation needs to rethink the rules that govern our digital spaces and make sure that these spaces don’t stifle democracy.
Through trade restrictions on tech businesses such as Huawei and China’s leading computer chip maker, President Trump has taken a hard line. But maintaining a functioning relationship with China will be crucial for a predictable supply chain of hardware for mobile phones and other devices.
Government officials allege that Chinese companies are also a security risk and may be subject to state-mandated data collection targeting Americans. President Trump has repeatedly claimed, with little evidence, that the video sharing site TikTok is culling data from U.S. users, and he sought to be the middleman in a deal, still pending, to sell the company to Oracle and Walmart.
It’s unfortunate that these issues didn’t get more serious debate on the campaign trail. The Trump administration’s handling of technology has been ad hoc and improvised. Mr. Biden promises a more traditional and deliberate approach. But the real challenge for the winner of the election is to anticipate and plan for the ways that technologies will shape our nation and the world for many generations to come.